34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”
- Matthew 25:34-39 (NRSV)
The Portland Tribune published an article this morning about how the City of Portland and Multnomah County are approaching churches to help shelter families this winter. A central argument made in the article is that churches are not doing enough to help those who are homeless (a point helped along with unfortunate comments from Jean DeMaster of Human Solutions that lack context). And while I agree that communities of faith can and should do more the article lacks many examples of where churches are active and how the faith community is in the planning stages of a major new effort to address the needs of homeless families and homeless students in public school. First, some excerpts from the paper:
Two weeks ago, as winter began to take hold in the city, Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, in charge of the city’s housing bureau, and county Commissioner Deborah Kafoury sent an unusual letter to 239 Portland area churches (and one synagogue). Typically, city officials writing to private institutions, even religious ones, are making demands. This letter was more in the form of a plea — to help house homeless families.
As of last week, neither Fish nor Kafoury had heard from any churches willing to answer their plea. If history is any guide, they aren’t likely to...
But this is not the first time Portland’s churches have been approached. Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions, which runs the Daybreak program, has been trying to add to her nine participating churches for years. In fact, DeMaster says, she and her staff have called 200 churches asking them to provide basement or classroom space for the homeless families served by Daybreak. All of those churches, many the same ones written to by Fish and Kafoury, said no.
What those comments ignore is that many churches are already involved. The Goose Hollow Family Shelter at First United Methodist Church, that I helped to start and later served as the executive director at, draws support from over 20 different congregations. The Daybreak shelter itself has support from nearly 20 congregations (a point mentioned late in the article). First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Portland, my home congregation and where I was ordained, operated a shelter for homeless youth for seven years until a permanent facility could be built. Last year evangelical churches raised over $100,000 to support homeless programs in the Metro area. Transition Projects, the largest provider of services to homeless single adults in Portland, was started by the faith community, and continues to rely on churches and others for meals and financial support. JOIN has recently started a partnership with Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and a Greek Orthodox congregation. First Unitarian Church of Portland recently opened a day shelter for homeless families. Churches in East Multnomah County started Snow-Cap and continue to provide the bulk of their support and volunteers. In recent years the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness in Washington County has engaged dozens of churches to work on homeless issues. Many churches also provide volunteer support and financial gifts. This is true state-wide.
The faith community is also planning a summit meeting on homeless families and homeless children in public schools to be held early next year. Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon is spearheading the project (I sit on their public policy committee). The aim of the summit is to address the needs of the 18,000 homeless students now being served by Oregon's public schools. Our hope is to bring together Oregon's interfaith community, elected officials, educators and business leaders to discuss how we can help schools serve these children and to talk about ways to end family homelessness.
To be fair, the journalist who wrote the article did give me the chance to express some of this:
...opening their doors is not that easy for many churches, says Chuck Currie, a United Church of Christ minister and longtime homeless advocate. Many Portland churches, he points out, have suffered declining membership for years, and almost all do some sort of social outreach work already.
“I think it’s fair for Deb (Kafoury) and Nick (Fish) to ask churches to become involved,” Currie says. “Being involved is central to our missions. It’s absolutely fair. But at the same time, winter is not an emergency. It happens every year at the same time. And their letter, while appropriate, probably should have been sent six months ago.”Currie says he doesn’t expect churches to respond positively to the letter from Fish and Kafoury because most churches can’t act that quickly.“I’m not saying churches can’t do more, and there are some communities of faith that aren’t doing enough,” Currie says. “But there are churches that are doing a lot, and they have been doing a lot for a long time.”
What the article missed - and this was a point that I stressed - is that it isn't the job of the faith community to take care of all those who are homeless. Frankly, churches don't have the capacity in terms of volunteers or money to do so. Ending homelessness will only occur when we build enough housing, provide universal health care, offer living wage jobs, and open enough treatment programs for those suffering from mental health issues and addictions.
As I told the author, Kafoury and Fish should follow-up with a letter to the business community asking them to support Measures 66 and 67, on the ballot this January. Right now many in the business community are opposing these measures that would modestly increase taxes on business. Many multi-million corporations get away with paying a $10.00 (yep, ten dollar) minimum tax in Oregon. Measures 66 and 67 would slightly increase that fee. Without the increase we'll see further cuts that will lead to reduced services and increased homelessness and poverty. Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and many in the faith community strongly support these two measures. When I mentioned this to The Portland Tribune I was told there wasn't room in the article to talk about taxes. But homelessness is an economic crisis and in ignoring the economics of homelessness The Portland Tribune missed covering the real story.
Homelessness is a moral crisis and I'd like to see the faith community more engaged. But to point the finger at churches isn't fair, it doesn't tell the real story, and it ignores that government and business are not doing enough to actually end homelessness, In fact, government and business do a lot to cause homelessness.