Blankets, Water, And Bad Ideas

By Gregory Flannery

Editor, Streetvibes, Cincinnati Ohio

People are living in tents and shacks in isolated pockets of Cincinnati.  They generate trash, as we al do, but they don’t have an easy way to dispose of it.

Last month a religious group decided to help, visiting homeless camps and removing trash.

The cams were cleaner for a while.  The volunteers were proud of their work.  But does this kind of volunteering, helpful in the short term, make the problem worse?

The consequences of charity aren’t always positive.  That’s why some people donate to a large non-profit organizations but spurn implications.  For some people, charity is first and foremost a religious act.

To social workers engaged in the complex business of helping people living an almost feral life, simple acts of charity sometimes can be impediment to bringing them indoors, making it easier for them to stay on the outside.

Enabling Homelessness

Members of John 15:12 Ministries visited homeless camps Oct. 9 after first distributing trash bags to residents who wanted their assistance.  Rumpke, a trash disposal company, sent garbage for the volunteers to fill.

John 15:12 Ministries take its name from the statement by Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament.  “My command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you.”  The organization’s goal went beyond tidying up homeless people’s quarters, according to an announcement distributed the week before the event.

“The most important part of this event is to show them we love and care about them, just as Jesus loves all of us,” the announcement said.  “To learn from them and about them, and to just be good neighbors.  This is an awesome opportunity to get out on the front line and truly see what homelessness is about.”

But homeless camps are not the place to “see what homelessness is about,” according to homeless advocates, who point out that the greater majority of homeless people don’t live outdoors.  They stay in shelters or double up with family or friends.

Moreover, some advocates for homeless people are comfortable with the religious thrust of this kind of volunteering.  But Annette Melk, who organized the Oct 9 cleanup, said her group doesn’t push religion on homeless people. 

“We build personal relationship with the homeless, encourage them and build friendships with them,” she said. “We don’t push church on them.  If they want to pray with us, we pray with them.”

John 15:12 Ministries visit homeless camps to provide rides to church for those who want to attend.  The volunteers provide a variety of other services as well.

“John 15:12 Ministries is heavily involved with the homeless,” Melk said. “Our founder is down at the homeless camps several times a week.  We do water runs numerous times a week, and they give us the jugs back.  We take firewood in winter.  Someone just donated 72 blankets.  I just got off the phone with a guy who as 12 tents.”

That is a problem, according to some people who work to get homeless people out of camps and into treatment and housing. While firewood and blankets have obvious benefits for people living outdoors, what’s really needed is housing.  Come homeless people have addictions, and others have mental illnesses.  If they are comfortable outside, the argument goes, the incentive to get treatment and housing might be lessened.

“I want people to continue helping,” says Lea Drury, an outreach worker with Lighthouse youth Services.  “However, there is a fine line between helping and enabling, and we all need to work toward being on the same page.”

Lighthouse, Programs to Assist in the Transition from Homeless (PATH) and other programs in Cincinnati send trained outreach workers to find people staying outdoors and connect them to professional services.  Religious volunteers would be more helpful if they collaborated with the professionals, according to Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

“We want to see collaboration between the people who are doing this every day and the volunteers [who] feel a call to do this,” he says, “If a group is going out and visits a camp and one of their new friends says, ‘I have this issue, and I’m ready to do something,’ we want those volunteers to call PATH.  We want everyone working together, having their own role, getting everyone connected to the bigger picture.”

We Don’t Ask

That kind of collaboration hasn’t been achieved yet.  Earlier this year Melk attended a meeting of the Homeless Outreach Group, made up of social workers, advocates and police officers who specialize in working with homeless people who live outdoors.  The meeting didn’t go as planned.

Melk said John 15:12 Ministries protect the locations of homeless camps, knowing that publicity can lead to hate crimes, vandalism and assaults on the people who live there.  She declined to tell Streetvibes the location her group planned to visit on Oct.9.

 “We are going to the camps prior and let them know what we’re doing and ask if it’s OK to bring guests,” Melk Said.  “We definitely are going to respect their wishes and get their permission.”

Having asked residents’ permission, Melk later invited a reported to join the volunteers, but Streetvibes declined.

The kinds of precautions Melk described only go so far.  After the Oct. 9th cleanup, John 15:12 Ministries posted photographs of its project on Facebook.  Several of the photos make the location of homeless camps easy to identify.

Melk said the volunteers don’t ask homeless people about any criminal records they might have.

 “We just go out and hang out with them.  We are more concerned with being a friend – not judging them, not holding anything in their past against them.”

Open - mindedness can lead to unexpected trouble, however.  When Melk met with the Homeless Outreach Group, she showed slides of her group’s work.  She told the social workers that some camps residents have visited the homes of volunteers.

That elicited concern from the social workers. One told elk that a photo showed her client and asked if Melk knew the person is a former sex offender.

“We don’t talk about that, we just trust God.”

Faith is generally considered a virtue.  But without knowing a person’s behavior or mental – health problems, are the church volunteers putting people at risk?

Melk left the outreach meeting in tears, according to several people who were present.

Spring and Drury said they both welcome the assistance of religious people and other volunteer but want to make sure the assistance is actually helpful.

“I value all people with a passion for helping homeless folks in Cincinnati,” Drury says.  “On a monthly basis homeless outreach service providers come together to discuss what’s working and what’s not.  We are trying to ensure our efforts are focused on guiding a person out of homelessness when that is their goal.  That being said, I’m concerned that going into camps and removing trash may be less than helpful to our struggle.  I would like to see faith-based outreach groups in collaboration with us in an effort to end homelessness”

Caroling At The Camps

Its work with homeless people has given John 15:12 Ministries a certain kind a street sense.  Organizers warn volunteers, for example to be wary of the kind of help they give.  In an e-mail, Kathy Casper, the group’s founder, described a request that was not granted.

“There is a fine line between helping and enabling,” Casper wrote.  “We want to help and be good stewards of God, but yet not enabling.  That is a hard one to explain and comes with experience.  Just keep in mind, when visiting with the camps you do not need to give them everything that is asked of you (and they will ask).  Example: this weekend one asked someone in my group for a ride to the store.  He said, ‘Sure! Annette will take you’ When I asked that was needed, she wanted beer,  I then told her no, we do not do beer runs.”

“We have several transformation stories of people who have moved on and are now leading productive lives,” She said.   

Casper raved a about the good that was done Oct. 9th.

“The impact of what took place that day cannot be put into words,” she wrote.  “People who have never been to the camps or even around the homeless were out socializing in the camps as well as picking up trash.  The experience was greater than just picking up trash.  It provided those our society deem unworthy with dignity, a sense of self – worth and the knowledge that people do care.”

Spring, however, says the problem of homelessness is more complicated that un- trained volunteers appreciate. 

“The complicated factor for me is we’re taught to do all this is a professional format,” he says.  “Then what is the role for people who want to do something but don’t have that training?  At the coalition, our position is they should be on the front lines, advocating for change.  But some people prefer to work with individuals.

“Each has a role.  That’s why we need to figure out how these go together.  It doesn’t make sense for both groups to work with the same people and have no connection.  That just causes more confusion for the people we’re all trying to help.”

“Meanwhile John 15:12 Ministries is preparing for another visit to homeless camps – this time to sing Christmas carols.           

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published Sept. 2011 Cleveland, Ohio