Too Many Christians Are Fighting Homelessness the Wrong Way | Sojourners

Too Many Christians Are Fighting Homelessness the Wrong Way

Image of a sign in the shape of a cross that reads, “Union Gospel Mission / Come to me, all who are weary... I will give you rest.” Credit: USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Connect

What’s the most important intervention to assist someone who is experiencing homelessness?

If you said “housing,” then you’d be aligned with the overwhelming consensus of experts. Those who research and study homelessness, people leading nonprofits, service providers, and most importantly, people who have themselves experienced homelessness believe that housing is the bedrock that allows people to rebuild their lives. This approach is called “housing first” because of its emphasis on the following philosophy: Begin with a stable, permanent place to live and then surround people with services. This approach is what helps people resolve their homelessness for good.

Unfortunately, we’ve spent a century doing the opposite. We’ve put housing last. We expect people to somehow get and keep a job, access and manage medications, and get sober without a stable home-base. It hasn’t worked — and homelessness has worsened in the meantime.

Despite its proven success, the housing first approach has its critics. Perhaps chief among them are people of faith — specifically Christians. In order to fully understand the Christian reluctance around the housing first approach, we must reckon with the institution that stands firmly in the center of this conversation: the gospel rescue mission.

Housing or salvation?

Nearly every major city has at least one gospel rescue mission, commonly referred to as just “rescue missions,” and most rescue missions have been around for nearly a century or longer. Long before the social welfare initiatives that came with the New Deal, rescue missions provided refuge, meals, and other support in the heart of decaying urban centers by serving the poor while also proclaiming the gospel in a way that was initially seamless and inoffensive.

As understandings of poverty, homelessness, addiction, and mental illness developed over time, rescue missions stayed largely the same, continuing to stress personal responsibility and faith in the face of systems failure. In other words, while our country removed safety net after safety net meant to catch those falling on hard times, rescue missions continually asked people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps — with God’s help, of course. Faith was not merely an additional component of what rescue missions offered, it was the cornerstone. Meals came after an obligatory sermon and the educational curriculum was primarily a Bible study.

These gospel rescue missions are by no means a monolith; many have abandoned the required pre-meal sermon, but still require a Bible-based curriculum. Some utilize more dignified practices and have robust partnerships with groups that provide health care, housing, and longer-term services. But the core belief remains largely the same: Homelessness is a personal, moral problem, and the solution is to turn to Christ. While there are exceptions, gospel rescue missions still largely speak with a unified voice — and that voice has a name.

Citygate Network, formerly known as the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, provides support and direction to its approximately 300-member organizations. On its website, Citygate Network emphasizes that the primary objective for all of its member ministries is “life transformation.” As they explain on the “About” page on their website, they believe in “8 ‘S’words” that embody what life transformation looks like. This transformation moves from the internal to the external: saved, sober, stable (defined mentally/emotionally), schooled, skilled, secure (defined financially), settled (defined as housed), and serving.

Where best practices and research say housing first, Citygate Network places it second-to-last. They articulate their primary goal as follows:

“Most importantly, within Citygate Network, members believe that spiritual regeneration—entering into a relationship with God through His son, Jesus Christ—is a key to success.”

This methodology lends itself to two primary outcomes: a prioritization on evangelism in the face of immense need and an emphasis on short-term solutions that don’t end individuals’ homelessness.

(In October, Sojourners reached out to Citygate Network to inquire about their priorities regarding housing and evangelism. They did not respond for comment.)

To really understand the methods and practices of these institutions, I spoke with two individuals over the phone and Zoom, as well as via email. Both of them worked extensively in gospel rescue mission settings. Both of them came to work at a rescue mission out of an abundance of compassion. They ultimately discovered, in their own way, that the institution did not live up to the calling.

Homelessness as a moral and spiritual failure

Lyndsie Francis started working at a rescue mission in Northern California in 2017 through an internship program, before eventually joining their staff in 2019 as a volunteer coordinator and then leaving in 2021. For her, it was an extension of her evolving faith journey to seek out opportunities to serve. “I thought working in the Rescue Mission would be perfect for trying to foster and grow my faith,” Francis told me, “but I think it just revealed the contrast between how Christians have interpreted the teaching of Jesus vs. what Jesus actually taught.”

When Francis worked at the mission, people could seek food and a bed in the emergency shelter for up to 30 days before having to return to the streets or otherwise move on. She also recalls that chapel was required each evening in order to keep your bed. During chapel, the mission recruited people to join their 12-month program which offered continued shelter with a strict schedule, culminating in a graduation ceremony followed by transitional housing. In a follow-up email, Francis described a typical day for the participants: “Program members spend 1/2 their day in classes (usually Bible studies, but there are a handful of life-skill classes or GED study classes). The other half of the day is spent doing assignments around the Rescue Mission (custodial tasks, working in the kitchen or warehouse, working the check-in desk).” They worked at the mission, unpaid, entangling their basic needs in a transaction: The mission would provide food and shelter so long as those staying at the mission worked for free and submitted to a particular kind of Christian teaching.

Dennis Edwards’ story resonates with Francis’ experience despite being on the other side of the country and serving decades prior.

Edwards was always drawn to people in need and was sent to a rescue mission on the East Coast in the late 1980s by his pastor to continue practicing his preaching skills. He distinctly remembers preaching to a disengaged crowd who were obligated to listen to him before they could eat. He was partnered with another man from his church, whose judgmental attitude toward the mission’s residents helped Edwards begin developing his own beliefs in contrast.

During a Zoom conversation, Edwards recounted a particular day when his ministry partner cruelly misjudged a man who was new to the mission and fresh out of prison. Edward’s partner insinuated that the first thing the new participant likely did was seek the services of a sex worker. But the man told Edwards he spent the whole day wandering the city trying to figure out how to restart his life. Edwards reflected on this exchange with me over the phone: “We came in there like, ‘They’re just these sinners that need to be saved,’ and my partner in this treated them like this, and here’s this guy just saying, ‘I’m just trying to figure out my life.’ That changed things for me.”

When you see homelessness as the moral and spiritual failure of those who experience it, the fruit of this theology becomes what Francis and Edwards experienced: A dogma that prevents people from having their long-term needs met.

Soup, Soap, Salvation

If the solution was just “Jesus,” one might expect that people achieve success in these programs at a much higher rate than in housing first programs. But the data shows the opposite is true.

After pouring over the outcomes from studies of different program designs in their book In the Midst of Plenty, experts Marybeth Shinn and Jill Khadurri conclude: “The data seem to show that the treatment-first programs” including programs like what rescue missions call “life transformation” prior to housing, “did not change people so much as they sorted them into those permitted to come indoors and those relegated to the streets.” In other words, programs like those championed by rescue missions don’t have a track record of resolving homelessness; they simply choose those who they consider worthy of help and invest in them exclusively.

Francis experienced this categorizing firsthand. Despite the mission’s claim to success, Francis noted that many folks completed the program “and then immediately relapsed … or things fell apart — they couldn’t get the housing they needed, they ended up staying at the mission for 6 months up to a year after the fact.”

Francis told me a story of one resident who was a bit of a rockstar, even securing one of the mission’s few, coveted internship spots that combined culinary arts education at a local college with his kitchen work at the shelter. Then, he relapsed into his addiction. The rescue mission immediately terminated him from the program; he never came back.

Rescue missions largely limit their offerings to needs that recur daily like food, shelter, and hygiene — tactics that seem to ensure people keep coming in the door in hopes they make a spiritual commitment. Edwards remembered a sign he saw outside of a rescue mission in West Virginia. It read: “Soup, Soap, Salvation.” He brought this up when reflecting on his experience at the mission: “We weren’t really talking justice,” he remembered. “We were really talking [about] these quick fixes, get somebody a meal and a bed. And that seemed to be the best we could do, and when you start pushing out to more systemic issues, many Christians weren’t ready for that.”

Is there a better alternative?

I know from my own work that many Christians and churches do genuinely care about the issue of homelessness. And rescue missions make addressing the crisis of homelessness look really simple: soup, soap, salvation. For churches and Christians who lament the homelessness around them but feel powerless to help, missions offer an easy out: Donate to a Christian organization that will do the work for you. But this can also mean the missions are geared more toward churches’ needs rather than the people they serve. Or as Francis put it: Some churches just seem to “like to sign their checks … We met the need [the churches] had of feeling connected to the community and feeling like they’re making a difference.”

But while rescue missions are not making a dent in homelessness because of their focus on spiritual solutions and half-measures, there are lots of better Christian alternatives.

Larger groups like Mercy Housing, a national nonprofit founded by six communities of Catholic sisters, have developed affordable and supportive housing on a large scale, prioritizing housing first to bring in and keep the most vulnerable people off the streets. In Making Housing Happen, housing advocate and book editor Jill Suzanne Shook provides numerous examples of faith-based approaches to affordable housing, including churches across the country that have set aside, donated, or sold unused buildings and land to be developed for shelter, tiny home villages, and even housing complexes. Churches and faith-based collectives — including organizations like Making Housing and Community Happen in Pasadena, Calif.; LA Voice; Open Table Nashville; and Minnesota’s Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative — have rallied around local legislation that allows for (or even mandates) the building of affordable housing.

Of course, the production and maintenance of housing is quite a lift, and many churches and faith groups don’t have the infrastructure or resources to do this. In the absence of housing, churches can still offer client-centered approaches to addressing homelessness that are both faith-based and evidence-based — and many do. Churches offer their spaces for shelter without stipulation or evangelism, developing programs that prioritize dignity and expression. Some examples I’ve gotten to see include the work of First Presbyterian Church in Hayward, Calif. (FirstPres), which provides shelter and programming for people; St. Peter and Paul in Portland, Ore., which provides meals and art groups; and Hilda’s Place, which operates out of Lake Street Church in Evanston, Ill., provides both food and shelter for people.

Programs like these deserve our support in the way of donations, volunteerism, and partnerships. They embody the best of what faith communities can offer, where theology meets evidence-based approaches to homelessness. If you begin with the belief that unhoused people are children of God who have faced situations outside of their control and are excluded from resources that would empower them, your response will be one that emphasizes solutions that actually prevent and end homelessness. But if you begin with the belief that unhoused people are experiencing the consequences of their own moral or spiritual failure, you end up with programs like those of gospel rescue missions.

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