Responding to the Realities of Homelessness
Every night of the week, for the five winter months of the year, 150-225 homeless individuals are transported from the center of downtown Nashville to 15-20 host congregations. The homeless person receives a hearty supper, access to hygiene facilities, a good night's sleep, a hot breakfast, a sack lunch and the hospitality of strangers who have opened the doors to those who occupy the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
This is not a one-way relationship, however, for the congregational volunteers are provided a safe and effective way to express their faith while encountering the poor face-to-face. Stories, laughter, tears and sometimes anger are shared as stereotypes are shattered and the humanity of all breaks through. Nightly, the belief that all are brothers and sisters equal in the eyes of God is lived out as the full spectrum of society simultaneously gives and receives.
Established in 1986, The Room in the Inn program of the Campus for Human Development in Nashville, Tennessee, is a symbiotic relationship. Over the five months of the program, 1000+ homeless individuals receive critical services while 5000+ volunteers from 156 congregations (including 35 UM congregations) engage in a significant act of faith that both challenges and informs. It is the ultimate win-win.
The basic lesson learned by congregational volunteers is that that there is no single cause of homelessness. Homelessness is the result of a constellation of factors that in combination hinder the homeless individual's ability to maintain the stability to function in our complex American society. These factors include:
Schizophrenia, bipolar and other severe and persistent mental illnesses.
Profound injuries, illness, or birth defects. Socially debilitating physical traits such as disfigurement, dental deficiencies, or obesity.
The inability to read/write, the lack of basic academic skills or no high school diploma.
A history of sexual abuse, combat, catastrophic loss of family, or a similar traumatic event.
Drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling and other addictions.
Severe Family Dysfunction
Abusive parents, broken homes, multiple residences/care-givers.
No Family or Significant Support System
Total lack of family or support systems due to death, alienation, or institutional childhood.
Dyslexia, ADD and other disorders which interfere with educational and life functioning.
Low IQ or head injury that hinders intellectual functioning.
The existence of a criminal record that seriously limits opportunity.
Limited Occupational Skill Set
The inability to do anything beyond the most basic manual labor.
The inability to purchase, maintain, insure, or legally drive a car or obtain transportation through public or private means.
The inability to manage the most basic life functions such as hygiene, housing, transportation, finances, and relationships.
Prior Long Term Institutionalization
An extended stay in foster care, juvenile institutions, mental hospitals, prison or other institutions.
Two or more generations dependent on public assistance or charity for basic living needs that has fostered an attitude of hopelessness.
The reality is that in our highly competitive, dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest (or the most privileged) American economy, the homeless individual with his or her disabilities often falls to the back of the pack in the race for the American dream and has little chance of entering into the mainstream of society.
Dr. Douglas Meeks, in his book, God the Economist, provides an alternative vision. He calls people of faith to move beyond the competitive nature of our economy and embrace a system built on cooperative efforts. That rather than abdicate to the existing system, that people of faith, whenever possible, establish an alternative that embodies inclusiveness, compassion and fairness.
For the Campus for Human Development, the challenge is to expand the present symbiosis that exists between the homeless people of Nashville and the 150+ congregations that comprise our support system into an alternative economic system. There are numerous model programs in the U.S. that have set up businesses that simultaneously train, employ and support homeless individuals while providing bread, cakes, waste removal, janitorial and other services to the general public. With the support of 150+ churches, the Campus has the opportunity to replicate these programs in a way that embodies “the economy of God.”
For example, recently, the only grocery store serving an impoverished area of Nashville closed, forcing the residents of the neighborhood, many of whom depend on public transportation, to go several miles to the closest market. What if the Campus were to re-open that grocery store as a vehicle for training and employing homeless individuals in retail food service? Why wouldn't the Campus effort to establish a food source in this area fail like several past attempts?
The difference could be the involvement of 150 congregations and their members who would commit to the idea of shopping at a venue that not only establishes food security to an impoverished area, but also provides meaningful labor and basic benefits to formerly homeless individuals. Rather than shopping for bargains borne on the backs of the poor, congregations and their members could shop for justice as they meet one of their basic needs.
Jeff Blum is Executive Director, Campus for Human Development in Nashville, Tennessee.