Speaking to the Faith Community About Housing First: Rescue Missions of the Future

rescue missions

Caution! Some content may be offensive. My hope is you’ll get mad enough to do something.

I’ve been asked to weigh in on Housing First. But in order to really start that conversation, I want you to know that I firmly believe the faith-based community is our best chance of ending homelessness.

However, we must adapt to new models and new ways of thinking, and we must embrace disruptive change to help better serve our communities—not just in the world of homeless services, but in all things we set out to do.

Taking Action

I once heard Guy Kawasaki, author and former chief evangelist of Apple, share the story of Ice 3.0. Before mechanical refrigeration was invented and adopted, ice was harvested during the winter months and stored in the summer—think of that method as Ice 1.0. Then along came the ice factories—Ice 2.0. I can remember as a child going to an ice factory with my parents to buy ice. Today they are all out of business. Why? The refrigerator-freezer became commonplace in every home—Ice 3.0.

What’s especially fascinating is that the people running each ice business could not see the next version of ice coming. People harvesting ice never saw ice factories coming, just as the people behind ice factories never saw the refrigerator-freezer.

Even when we see what’s coming, we must take action to survive.

Remember Kodak? Around a decade ago, Kodak was the undisputed king of photography—the largest photography brand in the world. Then the universal switch to digital essentially killed their entire business. Did you know that Kodak actually invented the digital camera but decided to shelve the new invention because their photography business was going so well? Their fear of deviating from what they have always known—film—caused them to lose everything.

New and Improved Rescue Mission

Instead of just starting a conversation about Housing First, let’s talk about the rescue mission of the future—a “New and Improved Rescue Mission.”

I have a vision of a rescue mission rising up in each community across America as the center-point of service and support. I can see a new type of rescue mission that people can’t stop talking about because it is the catalyst for positive change everywhere we look. This isn’t a rescue mission stuck on old traditions and outdated models, but it will be a new rescue mission that works alongside every single stakeholder in every community and looks for ways to “fill gaps” of needed support. I see a rescue mission that regional and even national governments look to in order to help end homelessness. We can be that rescue mission. But first we need to change, and it is going to be painful.

In the last five years, I have traveled to more than 200 cities in six counties, working with homeless services at every level imaginable. When I visit a community and begin working with stakeholders, it’s rare that the local rescue mission is even at the table. While not always true, in most of the communities I’ve been to, the rescue mission stands to the side. This is unfortunate, because we should be the ones who are championing for positive change!

Embracing Change

When I started Invisible People and started to work on my first road trip across the United States, I reached out to rescue missions. My initial hope was to travel across the country and highlight the great work you are doing. However, that never happened because most (albeit, not all) rescue missions simply do not play well with others. In my experience, it’s the truth. Many rescue missions are draped in years of tradition and want to do things the way they have always been done. This instinct to keep the same course is not a fault. In fact, it’s human nature. However, to create change we must embrace change, and the fact is that lack of communication and cooperation with others hurts both us and our communities.

A question I hear frequently is, “How is homelessness different in my city?” Well, homelessness itself is pretty much the same everywhere. Obviously, people experiencing homelessness in Anchorage live differently than those sleeping outside in Tampa. The most noticeable difference is the way communities respond to homelessness. Some cities will try to criminalize homelessness or literally bulldoze it away. Others will instead admit their community has a problem and embrace working together to end homelessness. The communities that share their resources while forgetting their differences are the ones who actually have the most impact on ending homelessness.

That’s where I believe Housing First works. It can save lives and save money. I have personally witnessed the Housing First model succeed time and time again when other methods, such as an abstinence-based model, did not.

As a model, Housing First and Permanent Supportive Housing are brilliant ways to end homelessness. The problem is…people and their adaptation to new practices. Another issue is the way programs are implemented and executed. Housing First is now the sexy conversation, yet it leaves out the necessity of shelters when shelters play a crucial role in the success of Permanent Supportive Housing.

My Own Experience

When I first heard about Housing First, I was facing homelessness for a second time in my life. I still remember sitting in a meeting, listening to information about this new model, and getting upset. The thought of giving away an apartment to someone when I also needed an apartment had me screaming inside, “What about me? I’m about to be homeless too!” Then they passed around a photo book that emergency homeless responders had made of the 100 most vulnerable people. Even after being homeless myself and working with homeless people, I’d never seen anything like it. I could only turn about a quarter of the pages; it shook me up badly and it wasn’t until then that I understood it—Housing First saves the lives of the people closest to death.

Years ago, a leader in faith-based homeless services told me a story of when he was running a youth ministry. His team visited a large church in Los Angeles known for its work with homeless people. The visiting group, led by a ministry outreach leader from this large church, started walking on foot to downtown L.A. near Skid Row.
Homeless in Mission
They happened to witness an older homeless man, bound to a wheelchair, tip over and fall to the ground. This man’s head was cut open and bleeding. The visiting team began to run over to help the stranger when the outreach leader stopped them and said with authority, “Don’t touch him. We’ll pray for him and God will take care of him.” My friend went on to tell me he was ready to call 911, but because of the insistence of the outreach leader, they all just kept on walking, leaving the homeless man lying on ground next to his wheelchair, bleeding on the sidewalk. We can no longer be witnesses, praying for help. We have to create the change.

I personally went through a faith-based recovery program and was hired on after my completion. My heart broke whenever a homeless person was too intoxicated or had severe mental illness and was not allowed into the program. What excites me about the Housing First model is that it’s a tool to help the most chronic and vulnerable of homeless people—those who, in my experience, are not allowed inside most shelters (faith-based or not).

60 Minutes recently aired a story featuring 100,000 Homes and their work using the Housing First model to fight homelessness in Nashville, Tennessee. I am a supporter of 100,000 Homes and was a leadership advisor during their startup. The segment shared the story of a man named Frank who was listed as the most vulnerable in the community, which meant unless he received help fast, Frank was probably going to die. He was placed into housing, and the next morning he was seen on the couch drunk after finishing off a bottle of whiskey.

I imagine that those opposed to the Housing First model might have passed right over his health issues and focused on the part where Frank was still drinking. But ask yourself this question: Would any of us have let Frank into our shelter? Perhaps, but probably only if Frank was willing to stop drinking and sit through Bible study. When we have a choice between sheltering or not, no one should make the choice that leaves a person out on the streets to die.

I had a homeless friend, Richard, in Los Angeles who had lived on the streets since his mother died. Alcohol had completely taken over his life. His liver was so damaged that there were sores on his legs so bad he couldn’t wear pants. He always wore shorts and tied bandannas around his legs so the sores weren’t visible. Any normal person would have immediately stopped drinking, right? But without help, Richard couldn’t stop. Along with an outreach team, we tried everything imaginable to help this young man get into either a rehab or a faith-based program. We tried for years.

Richard passed away on the side of the Los Angeles River some time ago. If Housing First was available, I believe his life could have been saved.

The police once called me to an abandoned building, where they had found a homeless man living inside. When I first met Lanny, he was in a condition worse than a human should ever get. He was so drunk he couldn’t stand or talk. For the next several years, I committed to Lanny. I tried to find him every day. Once in a while, I would be able to get him into an emergency shelter for a few days, but he would always return to sleeping outside. Lanny was a severe alcoholic. During one incident, paramedics told me he blew a .41 blood alcohol level. I don’t know of a single faith-based program that would allow someone in Lanny’s condition inside.

It took several years of fighting bureaucracy and other obstacles, but eventually, we were able to get Lanny into housing. His transformation was immediate and drastic. Without a “program,” Lanny stopped drinking. He still has an occasional beer, but so do a lot of people. He keeps his apartment spotless and even gets invited to holiday parties by his neighbors. Where shelters couldn’t work, permanent supportive housing saved Lanny’s life.

Trouble Spots

Unfortunately, many nonprofits that claim to be using the Housing First model do not have the resources to do Housing First right.

I have witnessed nonprofits shoving homeless people into bare apartments without as much as a bed. They aren’t doing this out of malice; they simply don’t have the resources. Unless an agency can provide a complete home, they shouldn’t be placing people into housing, period!

The other and more important issue is the lack of supportive services. When a chronically homeless person is placed into housing, he needs to have support services stopping by every day for the first six months at least. Visits can then gradually taper off as the person starts stabilizing.

Many nonprofits simply don’t have the resources to provide this kind of support. It can be a scary and intimidating experience for individuals who move into an apartment from living in a park or under a bridge. One of the reasons Lanny was able to make the transition into housing is because I personally took it upon myself to visit him every day until he adjusted.

The good news is that these issues can be solved with the support of a faith-based community. Housing kits and furniture drives can be fun and engaging events for a church or ministry. Also, visiting housed homeless people and providing tangible interaction can be a great fit for church ministries. Instead of fighting Housing First, we should all find a way to work alongside one another to produce support needed to house more people.

We Need Both!

As Housing First started to receive more attention over the last year or so, I noticed that the wonderful individuals who run shelters and transitional programs were often being excluded. I wrote an article for Huffington Post titled: “It’s not Housing First or shelters. It’s Housing First and shelters!” My piece addressed some of the communication issues I’ve witnessed. To paraphrase, Housing First is just one of many new tools in our arsenal to help end homelessness. We still need shelters. And for Housing First to work, both shelters and outreach workers must be at the foundation of our efforts.

Organizations that are condemning Housing First should take a long, hard, honest look at their own methods. No one should be in a shelter longer than a few months without a clear plan for permanent housing.

I have traveled and toured more shelters perhaps than anyone else, and I have yet to see a shelter that truly gives a person dignity. Yes, many do great work and have amazing facilities, but even an above-average shelter is not a place for people to live for an extended amount of time.

Ideally, shelters should be used for the vast majority of people who only experience homelessness for a short period of time. A coordinated community system can and should work together with both life skills and workforce development programs to help individuals get off the streets and out of a shelter in the shortest amount of time possible.

For the people who are severe alcoholics or drug abusers, and for those with mental illness—who probably will never find gainful employment—a coordinated community system should provide services to help get them into permanent supportive housing as soon as possible. Shelters are also needed to help facilitate street-to-housing while housing stock is being secured.

I believe a year-long faith-based recovery program can benefit someone who desires it. But an authentic look at the data reveals that persons who are given the dignity of their own home will recover faster than those living on bunk beds or dormitory style with a large group of men or women.

Love All, Serve All

Rescue missions are called to do two things: help people with both their physical and spiritual needs. The heritage of rescue missions can be traced back hundreds of years. We’ve done an amazing amount of good, but the traditional method of requiring people to listen to preaching before each meal no longer works. I know this is changing in many missions. But I fear that where it isn’t, this practice and other outdated methods are even repelling people from Christianity. I certainly don’t claim to be the smartest man, nor am I a biblical scholar, but I can guarantee you that the best possible way to help people spiritually is by simply being more like Jesus by loving everyone and working with our communities to help the most vulnerable.

To end homelessness, we cannot work as Lone Rangers. Homelessness is an ageless, ongoing problem that is too expansive for any one organization to tackle alone. But working together, I earnestly believe we can end homelessness—or at least come extremely close.

Most communities have a lot of silos with very few systems. My encouragement and challenge to you is to start reaching out to your community and begin to act as the peacemaker. My vision of a new and improved rescue mission is happening as we speak. I know of many new, bold, and visionary individuals who are pioneering disruptive change to help us be able to love more and do more.

We are not ice factories. We aren’t Kodak. We can see that change is coming. So unlike Kodak, we can’t be afraid to divert from what we’ve always known.

Rescue missions have the power to unite communities, leverage their resources, and become the game changers the fight against homelessness needs. The new and improved rescue mission can do this—and the change starts with you.

First published in the March/April 2014 issue of Rescue magazine, Copyright (c) 2014 by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.



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