I was recently with the Inner City Council of Churches giving a presentation on homelessness. It was a good time and at the end of the talk, there was a Q & A time where someone said, "While we all want to do something, we don’t have the resources or the expertise to do all of it. We need to get behind and support those that do have the expertise." It was a nice thought and I appreciate the encouragement and support of the churches in the inner city of Saskatoon. They deal with the same clients that we do and have similar experiences.
Over the last week I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing (internally) about the system. It’s a complicated system. In Saskatchewan you have the Ministry of Social Services, the Ministry of Justice, Corrections Services of Canada (two half-way houses downtown), the City of Saskatoon police, Fire and Protective Services, the Friendship Inn, Catholic Family Services, the Salvation Army, the YWCA, Core Neighborhood Youth Co-op, Quint, Egadz, both school boards, White Buffalo Youth Lodge, Westside Clinic, Friendship Centre, Crocus, the Lighthouse, Saskatchewan Health Region, Mobile Crisis, Youth and Family Services (especially the 16-17 program) Crisis Management, Mental Health, CPAS, Sask Housing, the Bridge, and I am missing quite a few more organizations but those are the numbers on my call list this week.
It’s a complex inter-related system which is reliant on a lot of external factors. Private sector funding, government funding (and in some cases three different levels of government and even within that, multiple government departments), the ability to hire staff, influx in population in need, facility space, and even the weather outside. If one of those external factors changes, it affects the entire system. I experience that first hand every day. Where I work, we are the safety net for when other parts are overflowing, overwhelmed, or just not working. That of course places burdens on us which reverberates back through the inter-connected system.
Churches are often outside of that system. Part of it is the awkward relationship that conservative evangelicals have with the social gospel. Part of it is that most larger churches are upper middle class by nature and full of people who chose to live in the suburbs to get away from the social problems of the core neighborhoods (who wouldn’t want to live where schools are better funded, skating rinks are actually maintained, there is less violence, and less property theft?) Other problems is that it isn’t just a financial problem that leads people to the streets but there are complex mental health issues that haven’t always been addressed and in some cases, the people refuse to address them. Those issues take a lot of time and a physical presence to overcome and in case you haven’t noticed, in times of a tough economy, coming up with money to have a long term presence if you are not all committed to the cause, is a tough, tough sell. Finally, too many churches see the problem and see themselves as the solution as opposed to being a small but important part of the solution.
I was reading offline article the other day about a Jewish congregation deciding to host community dinners aimed at building community ties between people. They brought the food, invited community leaders, police, and other parties to a giant neighborhood party. They made special invites to those involved in a city wide housing initiative with the intent to creating community roots and relationships. Over a couple of years a lot of food was eaten but studies showed that those in that area enjoyed a more stable, less crime, and used less city resources then those in other areas. The reason was the relationships built not only between the congregation and the community but between the community itself. When I think of the resources needed to host a dinner/bbq a couple times a year, I was amazed at the dividend that investment in the community made. The most interesting part of it was that wasn’t the Jewish congregations first idea, their first idea was to provide blankets for the homeless but the city asked them to stop because it was enabling people to sleep outside when there were the resources for housing for them. They reoriented and have made a big difference in a local community and from the article, it seemed to fit their core competencies really well. It’s a mustard seed solution which has paid off for the men and women in that community.
One of the reasons why I am cynical about political rhetoric when it comes to homelessness is that it tends to focus on too big of a picture while ignoring the incredible complexity of the problem. Generations of bad parenting, low incomes, institutional racism (think of the impact that redlining had on the development of inner city black and Latino communities), substance abuse, child abuse, residential schools, or even being the victim of the domestic violence that I see way too often now. Many guys that I work with really struggle with living in a community, they struggle with basic instructions, many don’t have basic literacy skills, others have socialization problems. Whatever the cause, they can’t function in the system very well. So we can talk about visionary big picture expensive ideas all day but in some ways I am starting to see that small solutions work well because the problems are so very individualized.
Today one of the readers of this blog dropped off a bunch of winter work gloves, gear and socks to the shelter that had been collected by his work. People have been doing it all winter. He was gone 10 minutes when a couple of guys came in and asked if we had some winter gear because they had outside instant labor jobs tomorrow. Most of the guys who come to the shelter get jobs at day labor places. It’s tough work but often they get hired on full time someplace if they work hard. I can’t tell the future but it is safe to say that in an economy that is shedding 250,000 jobs, more than a couple of jobs will be found by guys who benefit from that donation. Over the last two years many of you have dropped off a jacket at a shelter of at a depot like Sleep Country and Mark’s Work Warehouse is running. You have no idea how many people have been overwhelmed by a free winter jacket this winter. We have them hanging in our lobby at the hostel. Every time I think we will run out, more appear. In Saskatchewan you don’t really take warmth for granted (Wendy is from Guyana, she starts complaining about the weather in September and doesn’t stop until May) but I have to admit I don’t think a lot about frostbite. Yet for a lot of people across the country, they never had to worry about it either which is a big deal.
We were working through the budget the other day at work. It was a good process and as we finished up, I spent some time discussing a scenario of what we would do differently if we had the resources to build an ultimate shelter from scratch, We had a good discussion about it and after deciding we needed one of these in it (I am also trying to talk Wendy into allowing me to have one as well), we agreed that while a bigger facility would allow more people to be housed (which is a good thing) but it would also need to be a space where people can take small steps to whatever help they will need. For everyone that is different.
I am a red-Tory which means that I grew up being indoctrinated with the idea that says, if you work hard you will prosper. Even people living on sidewalk believe it. It’s not true for everybody. Some people need help. Some need a lot of help. Some people are damaged in a way that they are not going to recover from and need to be taken care of. Others can get reconnected but it’ll take time and money.
That’s where it gets tough. Where is the best place to connect? Sam Slovick talks about informed philanthropy during his films of Skid Row. It is is investing the underlying causes of a disenfranchised community that is at the bottom rung of our society. I am biased but I think the Salvation Army Community Centre does an excellent job is helping provide emergency housing for men (and soon women) who are in crisis and need safe housing. At the same time we are dealing with the result and not the cause of the problem. The Core Neighborhood Youth Cooperative and the Bridge are twp of my favorites because of their involvement with teens. Right in the back of our building is a Saskatoon Board of Education program called SAGE (I can’t believe it’s not online) which works with a lot of teens as well.
Invest in the kids (youth groups, after school programs) and invest in the parents (support drop in centres, CHEP community gardens), and invest in things that tie local communities together (inner city sports, the arts, the new Station 20 West), perhaps most importantly is invest in to invest in the gaps. Passion has to play a factor in this. What is your church really good at? What do you care about: Domestic violence? Community involvement? Literacy? Job creation? Teens? Single mothers?
There isn’t a fix to homlessness and poverty in Canada. It won’t come from the government, there are very few cities in North America who have the political will to do anything about it. Instead of waiting for the meta fix, there are a lot of opportunities to support something existing or help form something new. Start small, see what happen, those mustard seeds start to add up.