Lenten Series: Engaging Poverty Through Housing
My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places. Isaiah 32:18 (NRSV)
“On a single night in January 2013, there were 610,042 people experiencing homelessness in the United States, including 215,344 people who were living in unsheltered locations.” On that particular night, nearly one quarter (23%) were children. More than a third (36%) were a part of a homeless family.
So reports the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in its recent annual report to Congress. Many non-governmental agencies contend that HUD underestimates the actual number of those who experience homelessness over the course of a year, especially when it comes to children. The National Center on Family Homelessness, basing its calculations in part on Department of Education statistics, asserts that nearly 2.5 million American children were homeless at some point in 2013.
This tragic situation is tied in large part to such systemic issues as a lack of affordable housing across the nation, racial disparities, and domestic violence. While not comprehensive, these three issues are becoming an ever increasing reality faced by the unemployed and working poor alike.
• Affordable housing is becoming more and more difficult to find for the working poor across the country. According to HUD, families who pay more than 30% of their gross income for housing are considered “cost burdened” and may have difficulty affording basic necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households, nearly 10% of all households in America, now pay more than 50% of their annual incomes for housing. With an average fair-market rent for a two bedroom apartment in the United States at $977 per month, and at the national minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour, a family must work at least 104 hours per week in order to spend no more than 30% of their gross income on housing.
• Racial disparity is particularly troublesome when it comes to transitioning from tenant to home owner. A 2013 study by Brandeis University (as reported by the National Council of State Housing Agencies) found that “the legacy of residential segregation underpins many of the challenges African-American families face in buying homes and increasing equity. Homes are the largest investment that most American families make. Yet for years, redlining, discriminatory mortgage-lending practices, lack of access to credit, and lower incomes have blocked the home ownership path for African Americans while creating and reinforcing community segregation by race.”
• In 2005, nearly 50% of US city mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness in their city. Other studies report that as many as 92% of homeless women have suffered severe abuse at some point in their lives. With the limited bed space available for homeless women, many localities have been forced to prioritize services to ensure that those in the most immediate danger were protected – leaving many who have fled their abusive situations without shelter.
Having shelter - a place to call home - is foundational to a secure and hopeful life. It affects our present and future economic, physical, emotional and even spiritual state. Policies, practices, and ministries designed to improve access to quality housing are critical to breaking the cycle of poverty and providing opportunities for a better life.
St. Francis Center: A Ministry of Shelter
St. Francis Center, located in the Diocese of Colorado, serves as a “place of peace” for men and women who are homeless in metro Denver. Since 1983, the center has provided a safe and stable place for their guests during the hours that night shelters are normally closed, while also hosting an extensive network of services designed to meet basic human needs.
The root of the Center’s work, according to Executive Director Tom Luehrs, is to continue the Gospel mission of serving Jesus’ “least of these” in their region. With this in mind, Luehrs and his staff seek to provide a continuous place of safety and protection for the very vulnerable, offering a direct housing program, a health clinic staffed by full-time doctors and health care providers, mental and physical health services, employment help, street outreach, on-site social services, clothing, sanitary facilities, and assistance in securing vital documents.
In order to provide these services, St. Francis Center has developed strong and sustained relationships with people across the region. From members of the Denver business community, concerned with unsafe conditions downtown, to a municipal homelessness commission on which Mr. Luehrs serves, to local healthcare workers staffing their clinic, the center remains deeply responsive and attentive to the needs of their community. St. Francis Center’s accomplishments are not in short supply; indeed, in 2013, the last year for which figures are available, the staff served 10,000 different clients, and helped find regular, full-time employment to nearly 500 guests. Additionally, with their newly built 50-unit residences, they provided or found housing for 331 people in desperate need of stability.
Part of remaining responsive to the community is participating regularly in dialogue with area congregations, with the understanding that the needs felt in Denver are impacted by outlying communities, and vice versa. One fruit of this dialogue is the rotating women’s shelter developed by several parishes in the area, including the downtown Episcopal Cathedral of St. John. In this program, guests are transported to a safe night shelter located elsewhere in the city, and provided with a warm supper and breakfast.
St. Francis Center, originally founded by the Diocese of Colorado, has evolved into its own non-profit organization, though it maintains its faith-based mission. The center was affirmed as a Jubilee Ministry by Executive Council in 1995, committing itself to providing both direct services to and advocacy on behalf of the poor.
God of compassion, your love for humanity was revealed in Jesus, whose earthly life began in the poverty of a stable and ended in the pain and isolation of the cross: we hold before you those who are homeless... Draw near and comfort them in spirit and bless those who work to provide them with shelter, food and friendship. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen. (The Church of England, topical prayers online)
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This is the second installment of the Episcopal Public Policy Network's 2015 Lenten Series: "Engaging Poverty at Home and Around the World." To receive these reflections to your inbox each Wednesday of Lent, sign up here.