Episode 11: Epilogue
Housing First. Community First. Jesus First. Every organization has a different standard of success that shapes the way they combat homelessness. In this epilogue, Marvin Olasky takes a deeper look at the ministries we’ve visited so far, and offers insight on what works and what doesn’t.
PAUL BUTLER, HOST: If there’s one thing everyone agrees on about homelessness, it’s that no one agrees.
Mark Hilbelink at Sunrise Community Church says everyone is looking for an easy way out.
HILBELINK: Even politicians want an easy out for homelessness and, unfortunately, there’s not one. It would be really nice if there was like a one, two, three step to get somebody to not be an addict and not be homeless anymore.
Jo Kathryn Quinn over at Caritas says government-subsidized housing works. Period.
QUINN: My opinion is that if somebody is in housing and continues to be an addict versus somebody that’s on the street and continues to be an addict, the person that’s in housing, not only is that better for that person individually, it’s better for the community as a whole.
But Alan Graham at the Community First Village says government is not the answer.
GRAHAM: I mean, only look at government to do the things that government can really do well. We move housing from a very transactional model into a relational model.
David Pena at Texas Reach Out believes most people are missing a vital part of the equation.
PENA: God is not just about separating us from our addictions, you know, alcohol, drugs. But he’s concerned about the whole person and he even guarantees our eternity. Any other thing is just a band-aid and it might improve the quality of your life here, but it’s not about our life here.
And many people feel very strongly about their point of view, as Mark Hilbelink has experienced.
HILBELINK: At the beginning, we fought with our neighborhood a lot more than we do now. Now, I just get random death threats.
This podcast is about effective compassion. We’ve heard about Marvin Olasky’s research into the history of Christian poverty-fighting. We’ve heard about political wrangling over welfare reform. We’ve heard about current ministries battling homelessness and poverty.
And through it all, we’ve learned what’s needed for true effective compassion: the acronym is CPS. You’re very familiar with it by now: challenging, personal, and spiritual. We believe it’s key for the hard task of restoring hope.
In this episode, we’re circling back to four key figures in Austin, Texas. Each one is down in the trenches working to end homelessness. We’ll review some of their tactics and evaluate some of the beliefs driving them.
SPONSORSHIP MESSAGE: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization working to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea–the most dangerous nation for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week’s worth of food to a North Korean brother or sister. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
NEWS MONTAGE: I’m committed—as I said—to a huge bill on homelessness, 13.9, I believe, billion dollars…Our compassion will not allow us to look the other way. To be successful, our response level must match the scope of this crisis…There are still far too many Americans who don’t have a home at all…Five years ago, the president did something bold. He was the first president to set a marker through an initiative called Opening Doors that said we would effectively end homelessness in the United States by 2020.
The government is heavily involved in efforts to end homelessness. Yet according to government estimates, more than half a million Americans were homeless on any given night last year. That begs the question: how much trust should we put in political movements to address this issue?
OLASKY: Not a whole lot.
Marvin Olasky spent a lot of time in the 1990s and early 2000s working with politicians in Washington, D.C. He wanted to decentralize power. Give the government a smaller role, and give independent organizations and individuals more freedom to do the work they set out to do. And though some good came out of it, Olasky was disappointed in how things turned out overall.
OLASKY: Essentially the compassionate conservatism mutated into a program to help local groups apply for money in Washington and learn how to work the bureaucracy. And that wasn’t particularly helpful.
In retrospect, Olasky says he would have been less involved in specific political campaigns.
OLASKY: We don’t put our trust in princes, we don’t put our trust in the federal government, and as much as possible, let’s decentralize.
He says the best thing that came out of his involvement was getting to travel around the country and work with individual organizations doing effective compassion. Those are the programs he wants to see flourish.
OLASKY: I still think that regardless of the problems, the best governmental programs are those that try to supplement what folks are already doing.
Cities, nonprofits, and individuals have tried a thousand and one different approaches to end homelessness. In this season of Effective Compassion, WORLD reporters Charissa Koh and Anna Johansen visited various groups in and around Austin, Texas. They started to see a pattern. Each group had a different standard of success.
For Jo Kathryn Quinn at Caritas, the standard of success is getting people housed. It’s the housing first model.
QUINN: When people go into housing, they start getting better. Whatever their ailments are. And when someone starts to enjoy the stability of housing, permanent housing, that they don’t have to worry that the rent’s getting paid, they can just be in that space, they start stabilizing.
Once they’re stabilized, they have a higher quality of life, and--according to Quinn--can start working toward goals.
But as Marvin Olasky points out, addicts and alcoholics usually have little incentive to quit their destructive habits.
OLASKY: That, as much as the weather conditions, can kill people. Often does. So it hides the problem. It doesn’t take care of the problem in many cases. I’m not against homeless people having homes, obviously, but I’m critical of the idea that that is the way out of the problem.
Alan Graham hopes to address that problem by building strong and healthy relationships: community first. That connection is his standard of success.
GRAHAM: We’re a relational model, not a transactional model. We have a phrase that housing will never solve homelessness, but community will.
Graham’s Community First Village provides housing—but its main focus is on building relationships. Then those relationships become the catalyst for personal growth.
Pastor Mark Hilbelink also thinks in terms of community first. But even within the model, there are different points of view. Hilbelink disagrees with Graham on a few key ideas.
HILBELINK: What’s the best thing for homeless people? “Is it to remove them out of the community and allow them to be a community themselves? Or is it to embrace them where they are and learn how to deal with them where you are? I think the latter’s probably healthier. Whether or not it’s actually doable is another question.
So, we have housing first, and community first.
And we’ve also seen a little of Jesus first. Texas Reach Out, the ministry for ex-offenders, is one example. It offers practical help, including housing. But David and Margie Pena understand their most valuable work is discipleship. They know there are things that can improve quality of life, but only God can transform you from the inside out.
DAVID PENA: Long term and life changing, the transformation that we can get through our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s amazing what God will do, and he’ll completely change you.
MARGIE PENA: Everything helps as long as God is in the middle of it. I think he needs to sit in the chair.
David Pena knows that from personal experience.
PENA: My story is God’s story because it’s like I couldn’t do it without him. My grandkids don’t know the old man. They’re astounded to hear that I was a drug addict and all this because it’s been 31 years since I’ve ever used to be drunk or anything. And so it’s amazing. God restores, he really restores you.
Three approaches: Housing first. Community first. Jesus first. Now, let’s clarify. When we use the word first, we aren’t necessarily talking about chronology. We’re talking primacy: What’s most important? What’s the end goal? How do you define success?
So, how should someone decide what approach is best? Marvin Olasky finds clarity by asking: “What’s the root cause of the problem?”
OLASKY: We often hear root causes in terms of economics, of material. That’s very true. We are material beings as well as spiritual beings. But the root causes in many situations are spiritual not material.
This leads to the S of CPS.
Street evangelism, Bible studies, church attendance, intensive one-on-one or small group discipleship programs. There are many ways to introduce spirituality into poverty-fighting. Some organizations choose not to emphasize spiritual help—reacting to real abuses in the past. Others are afraid of forcing faith down people’s throats as an entry point to care—knowing it can lead to “convenience conversions” without lasting transformation.
And that leads people like Pastor Mark Hilbelink to say he’ll share the gospel with anyone on the street, but only if they bring it up. He wants it to be a natural part of conversation, not a bullhorn lecture. Marvin Olasky says that may sound good on the surface, but it’s probably not the best approach.
OLASKY: I don’t think that just waiting for a homeless person to bring it up is the way to go. I also don’t think that yelling at a person or lecturing a person is the way to go either.
Olasky points out that in normal, everyday conversations, we usually throw out hints about where we’d like the conversations to go.
OLASKY: It’s not when you’re in a conversation with a person saying, “Now let me lay the four spiritual laws on you.” That’s not the way we normally converse. But we might talk about what’s important to us, how Christ has changed our lives, and those are things you can enter into a conversation and then see if the other person picks up on it.
If you’ve listened all the way through this series, you’ve heard the letters CPS many times. And maybe you’ve realized that challenging, personal, and spiritual help comes in different forms.
Here’s an example. After visiting Community First Village, Charissa Koh wasn’t sure about Alan Graham’s approach.
KOH: He doesn’t subscribe to the same principles of compassion that Marvin does because he doesn’t challenge people. And that was interesting when he was saying he didn’t think they could. That was interesting.
But what does challenge actually look like? According to Marvin Olasky, it’s a basic principle that says you are not helpless. You can do something—even if it’s just picking up after your own dog, as the Community First Village requires.
OLASKY: The person needs to show interest in changing because this is what Jesus himself did. I mean he asked, “Do you want to get well? Do you want to change?”
There’s no strict formula for challenge. Some homeless people will never work a full-time job or be self-supporting. They are too sick, too mentally ill, or too traumatized by their hard years on the street.
If a program has a one size fits all definition of challenge—and equates success with a full time job—the program is doomed to failure. We’ve seen that we need a more expansive definition of challenge.
Community First Village has three rules. Repeatedly break those rules, and you’ll be evicted. That’s saying: “We expect something from you. You’re not just a taker. You have responsibilities to this community.” That’s challenge. And challenge will look different in different settings.
That also goes for the S and the P. Some groups make Bible study a mandatory part of the program, while others provide spiritual help as an option: It’s here, it’s important, but it’s up to you. Personal help might mean having a one-on-one accountability meeting. Or it might mean building a long-term friendship. When applying CPS, discernment is vital.
OLASKY: Maybe one way to think about it is, “Okay, if this were my brother or my sister and that person was asking for help, what would I do in that situation?”
Olasky says one principle to keep in mind is from Matthew 25:40. It’s a verse often quoted by poverty-fighting organizations or church-based mercy ministries. “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
OLASKY: Those verses from Matthew 25 are used a lot, but it does cut both ways. If you don’t help a person who’s hungry to have some food, it is as if you are starving Jesus. If you do things that enable the person to shoot up, you are sticking heroin into Jesus’ veins. It cuts both ways. It’s always hard to know what to do in specific circumstances, and there I think we do have to look for God’s guidance and the work of the Holy Spirit in others’ lives and our lives.
Back in 1995, Olasky explained to C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb that poverty fighters in the 19th century shared certain understandings. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish charities had theological differences, but when it came to helping people, they had a lot in common. They emphasized connection and community. They were discerning in their giving. They provided work for those who were able. And most importantly, they recognized that people are created in the image of God.
OLASKY: They all had a belief in a God who is sovereign. Again, they had different understandings of God, but, nevertheless, there was the commonality and would have come out in terms of people, was that people have value, are not just material, people have spiritual sides.
Those points of understanding still have value today. Many faith-based charities still practice them. In fact, over the past 25 years, WORLD Magazine has profiled hundreds of those organizations. They come in all shapes and sizes. And for the past 14 years, WORLD has formally recognized groups doing excellent work. We call it our annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion.
Next week, we’ll hear the last episode of Season 1. It’s a profile of the 2019 Hope Awards grand-prize winner:
BRISSON: Me, the adult homeless person’s been homeless most of her life works at a homeless shelter. Me, the addict who was strung out for 38 years is now a substance abuse counselor. God can take anything and mold it to serve his purpose, and I’m living proof of that.
That’s next time on Effective Compassion.
This episode was written by Anna Johanson and Susan Olasky. Our technical engineer is Rich Roszel. And I’m the producer and host, Paul Butler.
SPONSORSHIP MESSAGE: Effective Compassion is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of people in some of the world’s most hard-to-reach places. Help for today, hope for tomorrow. Right now, World Help has a window of opportunity to deliver food and Bibles to starving, persecuted Christians in North Korea–the most dangerous nation for Christians. A gift of $20 sends a Bible and a week’s worth of food to Christians living in this hostile country. More at worldhelp.net/podcast.
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