Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me

I suspect that this article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune was intended to showcase the good works of the local churches with respect to the problems of increased homelessness among families. And there is nothing wrong with such a showcase: providing shelter and transportation to those who've lost their jobs and their homes is indeed a laudable effort, especially with winter approaching. That local religious groups have put together such programs fairly quickly is a testament to the principle of caritas. Still, given the expense involved, one wonders how long the groups can continue to provide this temporary safety net.

Churches are responding to the rise of homelessness in the Twin Cities by aligning with groups such as Families Moving Forward and sheltering families for three to four weeks over the course of a year.

It's a practical approach that takes advantage of churches' cheap, open space and abundant volunteers. But it also has critics, because organizers move families daily between churches and day centers and rotate them to new church shelters every week or two.

Minneapolis-based Families Moving Forward's network of 41 churches and one synagogue includes sites in Eagan, Shoreview and Wayzata. Transportation consumes one-tenth of its budget.

Shelter leaders acknowledged the logistical challenges, but said the model works because families have the day centers as their home bases.

The church networks also remain cheaper than most overnight shelters -- despite the transportation expenses - and foster meaningful interactions between the homeless families and their church hosts.

Ordinarily, these families would look to the municipal and state social services departments for assistance, but no state has been untouched by the economic meltdown. When joblessness rises, tax receipts fall, and governmental budgets start gushing red ink. The states and local governments simply cannot keep up. They can no longer promote the general welfare of their citizens.

The church projects are at best a temporary measure, and one that isn't always the most efficient way to do things, especially when it comes to the costs involved.

Among those concerned with the roving church model of shelter is Monica Nilsson, street outreach director for St. Stephen's Human Services in Minneapolis. She figures it costs up to $1,000 per month to shelter a family with the church model and up to $3,000 per month to place a family in a traditional shelter. Both cost more than vouchers families could use to afford housing.

"What they need is a two-bedroom apartment at $800 a month, which is cheaper than both options," she said.

Ms. Nilsson is, of course, correct. But where do those vouchers come from and who will fund them? As I said earlier, the local governments are stretched beyond their capacity as it is. Sooner or later, the churches will have run through whatever money their members can come up with to help the less fortunate. It's time for the federal government to step up and do the right thing.

First of all, unemployment is the key issue. A new, actually bold program of stimulus spending which will benefit workers rather than bankers needs to be put into place immediately. Our crumbling infrastructure would be a good place to start.

Next, an expansion of federal funding for affordable housing needs to be implemented on an emergency basis. Section 8 eligibility should be tinkered with so that more of the newly homeless can qualify immediately and be placed in those two bedroom apartments.

Finally, the federal share of state social service costs needs to be dramatically increased for the next four years so that state and local social service agencies can do the job they were designed to do.

And where does the federal government get the money for these programs? It borrows it while interest rates are so low as to be nonexistent. As people return to work and began paying taxes, some of those expenditures will be offset. Programs which benefit Wall Street and banks can be slashed, as can the corporate welfare inherent in all the subsidies they've garnered over the years.

It's our turn.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home