Becky Goodwin: Can homelessness be ended? Yes!
For over 40 years, I have been on the front line with churches helping the poor and the homeless.
Churches are good-hearted and generous, and yet, this terrible problem of poverty persists.
The first time I got involved was in Soledad United Methodist Church, way back in 1982, where we heard a presentation from a team of missionaries who were doing a new kind of ministry in San Jose with transients. Homelessness was growing, due to the end of mental illness residence care as our nation had known it.
Churches donated time and money to missions like this everywhere. Surely that would do the job! But it did not. The problem increased everywhere across the nation.
Since that hopeful first attempt at ending homelessness, I have been in churches everywhere doing good deeds to ameliorate the plight of the suffering.
We donate blankets, clothes, hats, gloves, toiletries and food. We donate free meals. We pack bags of necessities for abused women in emergency shelters. We fill backpacks for homeless school kids. We staff winter shelters.
And we ask, why is this getting worse?
In one Salinas church, we had our very own sober transient friend, “Bill,” who was welcome every day to keep warm in the office. He would make himself useful with little chores. Eventually, that hospitality to one fellow would become an extensive daily ministry today to hundreds of the needy in Salinas.
I was pastor to a church in “Sacramento Family Promise,” a program for homeless families. The guest families stay in each participating church for a week. Meanwhile, they get guidance on their finances and health and other issues from a social worker, and in three to 12 months, they can usually manage a budget and rent a cheap place to live.
I worked alongside a chaplain in the downtown Sacramento “Loaves and Fishes” program. I gave money to her budget, and I met and mingled and prayed with her unique congregation.
I have listened with compassion to the stories. I have tutored children, baptized a family, and driven folks to appointments. I have disbursed vouchers for cafes and the local motel to the transients and locals who came to the church for help.
Now I am appointed in Grass Valley, where my congregation was instrumental in starting Hospitality House. I see the excellent work being done since it moved its headquarters from our campus to Utah’s Place.
So much love and care and money, so many good intentions and sacrifices, so many prayers, and hopes and dreams, so much creative action … but poverty in our nation continues, and increases.
There must be something else going on.
I would be a liar if I did not admit that I have compassion fatigue! Honest volunteers confess that we are exhausted from the efforts. It seems we are just wrapping layers of bandages around gaping systemic social and political and economic wounds.
We keep applying charity bandages, and we don’t see the sickness cured. We need to be heartbreakingly honest about the roots of this dilemma: lack of affordable housing!
Some families and individuals simply do not have enough income to afford the cheapest housing available. There is no profit in renting to the poor. Only government and nonprofit agencies seem willing to do it. The waiting lists for such units are excruciatingly long.
In my congregation, we say that there is a difference between charity and justice. Charity is essential. Always! But when charity does not solve a problem, there is a need to seek justice. This is a public moral crisis. It will take absolute determination by the whole community to end the problem.
The basic strategy to ending homelessness is homes! Imagine a combination of public housing, private rentals, small-home villages, short-term shelters and transitional communities. Even decent legal campgrounds will help.
When folks are in decent housing, they can better address the other issues in their lives that may be keeping them down. Anyone who can rent to the poor will be a hero in such a community effort.
Charity? Keep it going! All kind deeds of caring must continue!
Justice? A more difficult challenge!
It will take imagination and strategies in a coordinated effort of concerned citizens, government, nonprofit organizations, faith communities, and business to make Nevada County a great place to live for all people.
Becky Goodwin is a member of The Union Editorial Board. Her opinions are her own do not necessarily reflect those of the Editorial Board or its members. She can be reached at EditBoard@theunion.com.
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