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Homelessness in Twin Cities' suburbs: What should the faith community do?

An upcoming forum in Maplewood on homelessness in the suburbs got me thinking about a hot-button debate that’s been sizzling since President George H.W. Bush’s administration: What should the role of the faith community be in helping the poor?

You'll recall that Bush and others advocated an expanded role. At his inaugural in 1989 Bush asked those he called the “thousand points of light” to work hand in hand with government to solve problems such as poverty and homelessness. 

Said our 41st  : “The old solution, the old way, was to think that public money alone could end these problems. But we have learned that is not so. And in any case, our funds are low. We have a deficit to bring down.” 

Critics dismiss his position as little more than an excuse to spend less on government anti-poverty programs.

The Rev. Greg Boyd, pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, is the keynote speaker at the Feb. 8 faith community meeting to discuss homelessness in suburban Ramsey County. 

Boyd (no relation to me, by the way) advocates a partnership between faith and “secular” communities, though he goes out of his way to draw a dividing line between church and state. “I don’t believe it’s ever the church’s job to weigh in on partisan politics,’’ he told me. (He detailed those views in a 2006 New York Times story about himself and the evangelical mega church he founded.)   

Addressing issues of poverty and homelessness, he told me, is not just a nice thing or politically correct thing to do, “it’s right at the center of what it is to be a follower of Jesus.’’

Boyd added: “It’s our responsibility to assume responsibility for the poor and homeless, not to default and say that it’s government’s job.’’

And it will be a big job, even in the suburbs. Carol Zierman, coordinator of Heading Home Ramsey, a sponsor of the meeting, along with Suburban Ramsey Family Collaborative, said statistics on homeless school children show “there’s really something pretty dramatic going on.”

Homeless in the suburbs
The numbers of homeless school children in St. Paul and Ramsey County suburban schools have almost doubled in the past five years, to 1,996, said Zierman. 

In St. Paul schools, numbers rose 53 percent, she said. In the suburbs — specifically North St. Paul-Maplewood Oakdale, Roseville and White Bear Lake districts — numbers shot up 205 percent to 393 children. Only the Mounds View district had fewer homeless children last school year than 2005; eight fewer for a total of 52. 

(Zierman cautions that accurate numbers of homeless persons living in the suburbs are often difficult to gather because they’re almost invisible because the homeless often move in with friends or families, so numbers seekers turn to the schools for a count.)

Though Boyd speaks from the perspective of the Christian church, representatives of temples, mosques and nonprofit organizations also have been invited to the Community Forum for Faith Community Partners. The meeting comes at a time, of course, when the economic recession has caused homeless numbers to soar and state, county and city governments to severely tighten their belts.

The forum runs from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 8 at Woodland Hills Church, 1740 Van Dyke St. Expect to hear from some who have been homeless, as well as those who work with homeless families and individuals, including representatives from school districts and social service organizations and to discuss strategies to end homelessness. (Participants are asked to register by Feb. 1 here.) But don’t get the wrong idea. The forum is not intended to be a debate on the role of government and the faith community on issues of poverty.

The goal, said Ann Markovich,  a Woodland Hills staffer working with the event, is “to see what we’re doing and to challenge the faith community to step up and do more and to network.’’

Boyd takes a practical view.  “People on the street don’t care who builds them a home; they just need some food and training and a place to live. We will partner with anybody who gets this done,’’ he said.

Still, the government’s role in dealing with poverty is an important public policy issue. What do you think? Does the government have a primary role? Or do faith communities and other private parties have a similar role? And what about those of you who think it’s up to the poor to solve their own problems? Make your case in the comments below.

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Comments (8)

The problem with private party charity is the ability to select who and how they will help. A robust public sector assistance is blinder to the characteristics that make one needy person more likely to get help than the next person.

Everyone has in mind the picture of a family in need that needs a stabilizing touch, and voila!, a tax paying citizen is created, and the children have a stable home only months later. That can happen, but there most are much longer term projects, with many deeper problems that prevent successful integration in modern society.

And if you look at many of the private organizations that provide housing and other services to the needy, they are simply acting as the organized center of effort. Their patrons are signed up for food stamps, housing assistance, welfare payments, subsidized medical care, etc. In the end, it is taxpayers money that provides the brute force of funding for their efforts.

I guarantee you that there are almost no organizations out there that assume the full costs of feeding, housing, training, doctoring the needy over the time span necessary for reintegration. These private organizations simply do not have the financial resources to be the alternative to the government.

Perhaps their best role is to be the supplement to the government and provide the role consistent advocate, sounding boar and adviser as opposed to the sometime scatter-shot nature of the people at the various benefit programs.

“I don’t believe it’s ever the church’s job to weigh in on partisan politics.’’

No, no, no! There is an essential place for faith in politics. My faith plays a central role in how I evaluate candidates for office. The Catholic church's social teachings directly speak to public policy. That "faith" has been co-opted by those not the least bit interested in fighting for social justice (or indeed, are fighting against it) does not mean that we can or should write faith out of politics.

Churches should not be relegated to simply running soup kitchens and shelters. Their members ought to be up at the capitol saying, "enough is enough!" to rhetoric and policies aimed at destroying community and enriching the already obscenely rich.

in addition to Heading Home Ramsey, there is also an organized effort for Heading Home Hennepin and Heading Home Downtown Congregations. The response to take a variety of actions by hundreds of congregational members is underway.

"It's right at the center of what it means to be a follower of Jesus."

And right at the beginning of the US Constitution:

"...in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, provide for the common defence, PROMOTE THE GENERAL WELFARE, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity...."

Neal said: "The problem with private party charity is the ability to select who and how they will help."

Indeed. This is a concept I refer to as "the deserving poor," and private charities--bless them, we need them--are more prone to this, while the public sector must be even-handed. As an example, some religious charities require a person to listen to a sermon in order to receive a meal--no sermon, no meal.

I do note that the philosphy of the deserving poor did trickle into the Pawlenty administration when they decided that single people without children were less deserving of health care than others, and funding to this group was cut deeply.

I like some of the comments I've heard and seen on this topic. It's not really about how faith community (aka; churches). It's about how can a select group of people control those faith communities to dictate who gets help and who doesn't. But this is typical of communism and socialism. They have that issue in China.

We're quickly returning to a period of time where in the 30's and 40's, you had people who preferred to live "on the road" and have no formal residence. People who preferred just a meal now and then without any strings attached. On the flip side, you had those who fell on hard times and just needed a hand up, not a hand out.

Nobody really questioned the difference in the 30's and 40's. They just provided. Now; we have folks who want a demographics value placed in this so they can figure out how best to deal with the situation; or more realistically, how to control something to which they are not formally a part.

"Zierman cautions that accurate numbers of homeless persons living in the suburbs are often difficult to gather because they’re almost invisible because the homeless often move in with friends or families, so numbers seekers turn to the schools for a count."

So they a really aren't homeless, are they? They may not have their own home, but they have a somewhat permanent roof over their heads and they are not living in a temporary government/private shelter. Words have meaning. Only people with an agenda try to change them to suit their needs.

But, those moving from location to locations do have a harder time trying to find/hold a job and properly educate their kids.

"The problem with private party charity is the ability to select who and how they will help. A robust public sector assistance is blinder to the characteristics that make one needy person more likely to get help than the next person." Maybe a little blinder, but not blind. Many of the new, innovative government programs identify chronic users of systems, targeting them in an effort to save system costs.