Our emergency homeless situation this winter got better this past Friday. An announcement with Berkshire Medical Center, Soldier On, ServiceNet, and Berkshire Housing Authority told of their cooperation and collaboration to house people in emergency beds this winter in the city. Basically, the hospital will provide money. The local shelter, Barton’s Crossing, will increase its beds and Soldier On will take overflow people.
We got the 20 additional beds we estimated we needed for this winter. We based that number on the number of people who came to last winter’s shelter. We also will have a more coordinated intake system, which will ultimately give us a better handle on managing homelessness in this city.
We also recognize that there is a lot of work yet to do and that this action is not a solution for the long term. Rather, I would characterize it as resolving a difficult situation for the present time. We acknowledge that we have to start work now to avoid being in this same position next year. Ideally, we need to know what we’re doing about homelessness for next winter by early autumn 2014 to avoid scrambling.
Since becoming involved in this problem, I’ve had a crash course in homelessness. The course goes beyond knowing how many people are homeless and where they live. I’ve come to recognize that homelessness is complex and requires more than just providing shelter beds. We cannot treat the homeless as an undifferentiated mass. Even referring to them as “the homeless” robs them of their particular circumstances, thus diminishing their dignity.
Certainly poverty plays a huge role. Pittsfield once had a significant industrial base, but that’s gone now. While we still have large employers: General Dynamics, Berkshire Life, and Berkshire Health Systems, we are not nearly as wealthy as we were thirty years ago. We have many people who work in service industries at fairly low wages. I was told recently that if we increased our minimum wage in Massachusetts, it would increase the wages of 20% of our current work force.
We have a terrible inventory of affordable housing. Depending upon who you talk to, the wait for Section 8 housing is three to four years. Back in April we took a short survey of people who come to our public suppers offered by the churches Mondays through Fridays and learned that on an average the people pay 60% of their monthly income towards housing. This is twice the normal ratio of housing to income. Is it any wonder that they have to eat at public meal sites?
We have a major drug and substance abuse problem among the people who are homeless. Many also suffer from mental illness. But we don’t have enough services to help them.
Given the current thinking politically, especially at the federal level, we can’t expect a lot of additional money to address these problems. There won’t be money for economic stimulus, such as funding infrastructure projects. We won’t be getting much more money for affordable housing (and with the change at HUD to emphasize funding housing versus shelters, we can’t figure we’ll get a lot of money for homelessness). I doubt we can count on money for drug and substance abuse rehab.
I keep thinking that we’re going to have to find a different way to address this issue in order to change the dynamics. It has to go beyond asking for money from outside of the community.
We had a mission board meeting following church today. One of the board members asked me about what we can do. I began to talk about microcredit also known as microloans or microfinance and that the faith community can leverage some of its assets to develop this program. Microcredit provides small loans to people, generally those who live in poverty, to fund business start ups. People who would access microcredit are shut out of typical capital resources.
A microcredit program begins by recognizing that there are different dimensions of poverty and that people are affecting by it differently. Such a program may not work for all people who are poor, but will make a difference for some of them.
I suggested that we can use our mission money to leverage more money rather than just give it to another agency or program. One idea would be to invite people to start a small savings account, microsavings. We offer an incentive to people to start their accounts by giving them a small amount of money, $50 for example, to participate. Their participation would require that they meet with a financial mentor who would counsel and teach them personal finance. We could provide incentives such as asking participants to put money into their accounts regularly and that after six months we would match that amount with another match coming at the end of year. The financial mentor would come from the church. All of the mentors would be trained in the same personal finance program to ensure standardization. We would also work with a local financial institution to be the repository for the accounts.
Unfortunately, as I do interim ministry, my tenure at my current church will end next month. I won’t be able to get this underway where I’m serving now.
So, I’m not sure what my point is in this, except that as churches we have to think of the way we do ministry differently. Some people would say we should be more entrepreneurial, which sounds like we should make more money. I just think that the issues we face in some of our communities require us to respond differently than we have in the past. Whereas giving money to worthy community groups and activities was once appropriate for Pittsfield, it’s not sufficient now. We should think about all our assets and stop thinking of them as our assets. We should not forget that they are God’s assets and that God made us stewards of them.
While it sounds as though I’m saying that we should give away all of our money, I’m not. But we shouldn’t only use the income from our assets to live off of it for ourselves. This was money given to further the ministry of the church. We don’t exist only for ourselves, but we exist for the glory of God.
I recently heard the following. “God owns everything. God doesn’t share.”
Pittsfield has changed. The political climate has changed. We have to change the way we do our ministries because we’re not ministering to the same community we did in the past. What we have is God’s. We have to share.