Last week our local interfaith council, Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations, met. It was a grim meeting.
We learned that one of our homeless shelters from last year will not be able to open this season. Last year’s shelter was at the Salvation Army. It housed about 17 people each night from 7:00 PM to 7:00 AM. It was also not a “dry” shelter, meaning shelter residents didn’t have to be sober. They just had to behave.
The shelter ran afoul of a couple of state regulations. First, a church cannot be a homeless shelter for more than seven consecutive days. Second, the total number of days a church can be a shelter for a year cannot exceed 52 days.
We kicked around an idea. We rotate the shelter site among our churches, one week per church. Given the number of weeks of winter and the number of churches, some churches might have to do it twice. Also, due to some safety regulations, such as security alarms, some churches are not code compliant. We have a way to move the cots from one location to another each week.
Still, this is crazy. It’s hard enough to get a church to be a homeless shelter, but to get several churches to consent to be a shelter makes it even tougher. Furthermore, moving the shelter every week undermines what little stability they provide.
Oh, let’s also not forget that there is no farm bill at the moment, so SNAP benefits may not be forthcoming either as of November 1. So, sure, on top of the food we already distribute, we’ll make up the loss of SNAP food.
Our churches do serve people in need. We do it because that is discipleship AND the system has failed too many people in this city. While we don’t resent serving those in need, at some point we have to face that some tasks are too big for aging, small congregations.
Sure, our ethical imperative based upon the gospel calls upon us to serve, especially those who are poor, broken in spirit, etc. We do that. Some churches can do more, but others already do a lot.
But being the community’s social safety net gets tiring. It seems easy to say, “We’ll have the churches do it.” That’s so obvious, except when you realize that most of the people in most communities have no connection to churches or synagogues or mosques or temples or other religious institutions. It shows how clueless people are over the reality in our faith communities: declining membership and a median age probably older than the secular community.
At one time churches were the source of benevolences in a community. There was no government assistance. Some may argue that’s the way it should be, even though they ignore the trend since Roosevelt’s New Deal. Sadly, some who argue that government should not be providing assistance are in Congress.
While the church was the center of a community’s benevolences, it’s not really possible now. The proportion of people in the community who are part of a church is much smaller than before. Today’s church operating costs are much higher due to such items as insurance and utilities. Furthermore, many churches operate buildings which are too large for the current congregation. They also cannot readily sell them and find suitable space for the ministries they currently do.
Over the last few decades we’ve seen steady cuts to social programs. We’ve seen fiscal policies that overtly transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. It seems that the number of poor are increasing. Certainly, more families seem to living one paycheck away from financial disaster.
“We’ll have the churches do it.” We stretch as best we can. But we cannot continue to keep the social safety net from falling apart. The holes are getting bigger because of callous disregard for the plight of the poor. Every month new holes appear and we’re running out of material to patch them.
Continuing to ask the faith community to help those who are poor, mentally ill, broken spirited, homeless … you get the picture … is an abdication of the secular community’s collective social responsibility.
Yeah, maybe the faith community has to rise up and demand that the secular community do its job. But, we’re so overworked keeping the social safety net from disintegrating that we have no time or energy or resources left to fight. It’s also particularly galling that the GOP had no qualms about shutting down the government and, consequently, racked up around $24 billion doing it, but they can’t seem to find money for social programs.
We’re trying to figure out the shelter situation before it turns cold. We’re asking about excess properties. But this hasn’t been easy. It also makes a lot of other stuff seem pretty inconsequential when 17 lives are on the line for this winter. The sad part of all of this is if the secular community took its responsibility seriously to care for the everyone, we’d not have to worry about sheltering them.