New study: Faith motivates best homeless care
Religious groups shoulder most of the care for those without a stable home
WASHINGTON—New research from Baylor University finds faith-based organizations shoulder the bulk of critical care and services for persons experiencing homelessness.
The new 146-page study looked at 11 cities across the United States to see how homelessness affected each community and how faith-based organizations factored into relief efforts. In the cities surveyed, faith-based organizations provide nearly 60 percent of emergency shelter beds on any given night—not including aid from individual churches, synagogues, and mosques.
Faith-based organizations that offer services for the homeless saved taxpayers $119 million over a three-year period while providing $9.42 in socioeconomic benefit for every $1 in government funding.
Byron Johnson and William Wubbenhorst from Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion conducted the research. They defined faith-based organizations as any for which a religious faith formed the primary motivation for serving the homeless community, including but not limited to Christian groups.
Johnson said he went into the study well aware faith groups contribute in significant ways to communities with high homeless populations, but group innovation and comprehension surprised him.
“It’s not just ‘you read this passage in the Bible and I’ll try to help you understand it’—they’re helping people understand how to balance a checkbook, they’re teaching people how to find a job,” Johnson said.
The study surveyed groups in Seattle, Portland, Ore., San Diego, Denver, Phoenix, Omaha, Neb., Houston, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Jacksonville, Fla. Johnson and Wubbenhorst focused on large national organizations like Gospel Rescue Missions, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Jewish Family/Community Services, and some local groups.
Faith-based organizations are able to help the homeless in unique ways, compared to traditional government safety nets because they prioritize holistic care for physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual needs, according to the report.
Addiction recovery programs help participants obtain and keep jobs and incur fewer healthcare-related expenses. After curbing addictions, many ministries help those living in poverty learn life skills. Those who complete programs generally spend less time in prison, contribute to the tax base, and are better able to keep their children out of the taxpayer-funded foster care system.
Herb Johnson, president of San Diego Rescue Mission, said his group operates with an annual budget of $21 million—without one penny coming from the government. He stressed the importance of remaining independent to keep the mission’s faith component.
“Absent Bibles, we’re just another hotel,” he said. “It is the basis of all that we do. … We unabashedly worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Robert Doar, a poverty studies fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said he’s seen first-hand the impact faith has on helping those experiencing homelessness: “Government is good at transactions, faith-based organizations are good at transformation.”
Last year, Brian Grim of Georgetown University published a report on the total socioeconomic impact of religion in the United States. He estimated religion could add almost $5 trillion in value to the U.S. economy each year.
Johnson told me he intends to use his newly published report as a launching pad to work with Grim and others to study religion’s impact more comprehensively. That analysis is especially important because many government-commissioned studies ignore the work of churches and faith-based groups.
“I think the government, a lot of times, has not been faith-friendly—plain and simple,” Johnson said. “Faith-based organizations deserve some recognition, but they don’t get so much as a footnote.”
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