Interfaith Hospitality Moves Away from Congregations

      I have been volunteering three or four times a year since the Interfaith Hospitality Network came to Cleveland Hts in 1997.  I started sleeping in the church cafeterias and social halls for 15 years with families struggling to find a place to live.  Interfaith Hospitality merged with New Life Community to form Family Promise and now they are doing away with hosting families at the facility of these partner religious congregations.  Instead families will stay at one facility and church members will go to that location and volunteer.  The last church to host the families was Communion of Saints on the St. Ann's campus.  This may be better for the families because they don't have to travel to the day center in the morning and in the evening.  My concern is that the religious groups will not stay active.
      I am sorry to see the host congregation concept die in Cleveland.  I really love this program and will miss it.  I testified for it at Cleveland Hts. And Shaker Hts. City councils when neighbors spoke of their safety concerns.  I work with the shelters every day in Cleveland, so I would have something to compare the host congregation concept to.  I am not sure that shelter staff, county people and the administrators understand how valuable this program is to the community.  The value comes from being different from all the others shelters and services.  It works for many because of the involvement of so many different volunteers.  It puts in to practice the concept of the village taking care of those struggling.  Homeless families are screened and then accepted into the network.  They don't take victims of domestic violence or families that would be too difficult to serve by the volunteers.  The families are helped during the day by a social worker and then are transported to one of the churches to sleep over night.  The day shelter has showers and a place to do research and computer work.  Volunteers at night make dinner, help with an activity and sleep overnight with the families.  

    I do not see the burnt out staff and huge turnover that I see at almost every other shelter in Cleveland.  The volunteers who prepare a meal, plan a game or sleep overnight want to be there.  We were not punching a clock and we did not dread hearing the stories of tragedy we hear form the families.  The volunteers only donated their time quarterly so they were not callous or jaded.  The volunteers brought a thousand different talents to the families.  Some might have known a job lead, others may have known a vacancy in an apartment, while others may have known the superintendent of schools to cut through the red tape of getting transportation back to the child’s school of origin.  Some of the volunteers could pick up the phone to get I.D. for a child while others can get immunization records we have.  There are hundreds in each congregation who can offer help to these families.

       It is a hassle to provide transportation but that is what makes the program work. It is a pain to organize all the volunteers with their busy lives, but the volunteers are a huge irreplaceable asset.  The trained day center staff can work on housing, jobs and stability, and they do not have to worry about food, sleeping and monitoring.  In my book it works!

       In a time of huge increases in homeless families in Cleveland we need a bigger network not a reduction.  In a time when we are housing 20 families in overflow every night in Cleveland, we need the churches to do more not less.  In a time when we lost family shelter beds such as the closing of Continue Life, we need more access to family shelters and not less.  We heard that this move may also result in the reduction in the number of families that Family Promise can serve.   Congregations, individual parishioners and clergy will forget about the problem if they are not forced to become involved at least quarterly. It is a hassle to have to rally the volunteers, food and space to serve these 4 or 5 families, but it keeps the issue of homelessness in front of the congregation. 

     Some of the volunteers are sitting down with the parents to talk about their issues.  They learn how long the waiting lists are for housing.  They hear how employers will not hire a person who does not have a solid address.  They face discrimination in employment, housing and even from some in the social service sector because of their homelessness.  The volunteer may learn how tough it is for a family to be in overflow or the struggles to get transportation to their child's school.  I fear that without the time that they have to volunteer, the church groups will move further away from the problem of homelessness. 

     When I started volunteering for the Homeless Grapevine, the big churches were running a number of the shelters and the religious groups were critical to the success of the homeless programs.  Now, there are very few of the programs associated with churches and very few religious leaders regularly talking about homelessness.  We have come to accept homeless families as a part of the landscape and I fear that this move by Family Promise will only accelerate that trend. 

Brian Davis

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Questions Not Asked on Weekend Edition on NPR

There was a toxic individual on Weekend Edition Sunday on November 9, 2014 who tied anti-feeding programs with "enabling" homeless people.  The worst was his controversial theory was unchallenged by the host.  He provided facts not supported by academic evidence.  We have a lot of experience with this matter having negotiated an agreement between the local churches and the City of Cleveland.  Robert Marbut who sells these controversial policies by claiming that church feeding programs are enabling homeless people to live outside.  "And if you give food on the street, you end up in a very convoluted way, but still an important way, you end up preventing people from going into 24/7 programming," Marbut said on the show.  This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the church groups are doing and a huge misunderstanding of homeless people in the community.

Despite his claim to have spent time on the streets visiting homeless people, he does not understand addiction, mental health issues or poverty.  He is not advocating for a massive infusion of funds to build more affordable housing, he is proposing rearranging the deck chairs to force more people into treatment.  No city has reduced homelessness or those living outside by 80%, so his numbers are bogus.  There is no treatment on demand in most cities, and so cracking down on food distribution and quality of life issues only makes poor people into criminals. There are decade long waiting lists for affordable housing, so that even people who work full time at minimum wage cannot afford the market rate for housing.  You can't make laws that reverse decades of neglect of affordable housing.  Finally, the churches are not feeding outside because they are trying to make it easy for homeless people to live on the streets.  They are following Biblical passages to go to where the poor live and minister to them.  They are not looking to end homelessness or even to end hunger, but to proselytize to those in need of spiritual help by breaking bread with those without a home. 

Government should never get in the business of regulating the harmless activities of a church and feeding hungry people is life sustaining not enabling. There was no discussion of the other four pieces of legislation passed in Ft Lauderdale which makes it illegal to be homeless (no sitting, no camping, etc.)  We have reduced the number of people sleeping downtown for a number of reasons including a compromise with the church groups.  We did not ask the City to use law enforcement for regulating social services.  We are not under the delusion that we reduced homelessness.  We just moved the population to another area of town.   The distribution of food does not have anything to do with homelessness.  By reducing the amount of food prepared by churches does not force people to go into a shelter or a treatment center.  It forces them to move out further from the downtown or resort to criminal activity in order to get food. 

Reuters did a nice job with a feature on the cook who was arrested, which was far superior to the interview conducted on NPR.  Here are the questions that Ms. Martin missed when interviewing this homeless whisperer for cities:

  1. Who is verifying the numbers you claim with your plan to not enable homeless people with food results in fewer homeless people? 
  2. Isn't it cruel to withhold food from humans who do not have a place to store food safely?
  3. If government is allowed to restrict the distribution of food by a religious groups can they also demand membership roles in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings who are not keeping sober or bar them from giving out clothing to those who spent their money on lottery tickets instead of winter clothing?
  4. Aren't you proposing a massive expansion in affordable housing and treatment for all the people seeking food? Are there beds going to waste because church groups are enabling people with food? 
  5. You claim to be staking out the middle ground here, but the advocates who fight these ordinances claim that they do not want feeding programs.  They want housing, but do not want to restict access to a life sustaining activity until America provides universal access to housing.  Shouldn't cities be creating the sober housing and residential treatment programs for the thousands living outside and then ban feeding outside?

It is a shame these questions were never asked of this broker in human misery.

Brian Davis

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry