The last few weeks have been challenging. I’ve been working with the mayor’s assistant on an emergency shelter for this city. It’s been an eye-opening experience.
People have been asking me about our progress towards the shelter. I’ve described it as connecting dots that don’t follow any straight line trajectory. We make a little progress each day. Each day we learn something new as well.
It’s coming down to needing about 20 emergency beds this winter. We know there are many more than 20 people who need emergency shelter, but some of these people do not wish to enter a shelter for various reasons.
Emergency homeless shelters have been a problem in Pittsfield for years. Basically, we’ve only had one. We had a meeting on Friday at City Hall and many of the stakeholders were present: police department, sheriff’s office, hospital, social service agencies, housing authority, other church folk, city building department … you get the picture. For all the years we’ve had this problem this is probably the first time we got everyone together.
We have people living outside. They live in the cemetery. They live in our parks. They live in some of the stairwells in our parking garages. Two are high school students.
The reasons for homelessness are not easy to categorize. Some have to do with poverty and lack of affordable housing in this city. Other are substance abusers, drugs and alcohol. Some people have mental illness. And it’s probably not just one thing, but a combination.
No surprise, really, from Friday’s meeting was the complexity around emergency shelter. We have city regulations for building safety: fire alarms, sprinklers, and handicapped accessibility. We have state regulations. We have a social service network where agencies with similar missions compete for the same grant money. Furthermore, the network has been structurally designed to operate in silos, which really doesn’t address the tangled needs around homelessness. Then, we have housing policies which don’t address housing in an intentional and comprehensive way.
We left the meeting with a somewhat solution, which hinges on getting between $80,000 and $100,000. It might shake loose from the state; our local legislators will try. The city doesn’t have that kind of money. In a way it seems sort of crazy not to have this money available to spend because homelessness’ cost on a community far exceeds that. The local hospital estimated it costs them somewhere between $350,000 and $400,000 a year. Goodness knows how much the police department spends.
We also recognized that we need someone to coordinate the various efforts around the city, but there’s no position for that, either.
We’re a little better off than we were a week ago, but we’ve still got a problem.
Realistically, the faith community is limited in the way it can respond to this crisis. Housing the homeless these days is a lot more complex than just setting out cots for people to sleep. Shelters need trained staff because of the multiple issues homeless people have. Furthermore, the money will strain most congregations’ budgets.
But the faith community can’t walk away from this either. Minimally, we bring a voice of conscience to the secular community. We also can try to function in the system’s cracks. The competition for grant money and the siloization of social services – the faith community can cut across it.
The crisis teaches us that the faith community does not have to address community problems on its own. The ills in our communities sometimes dwarf the resources and capacities of our local congregations. Our congregations, however, should not shy away from them. Rather, we should seek collaborators, both sacred and secular, to effect necessary change. And as a voice of conscience, we can use it and should use it more often.