Thursday, May 31, 2007

Mitch Snyder is Spinning in His Grave

I've heard from several very well-placed sources that the upcoming Seattle conference to more deeply engage the faith community in providing housing and services to homeless people is not tied to the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. Apparently, there's a small pot of money left over from the Fannie Mae Foundation melt-down, and this is part of how it's being spent. While the OFBCI does have a strategy of sponsoring conferences around the country, this is not that.

The Church Council's Sandy Brown and Seattle Office of Housing's Adrienne Quinn are co-chairing the organizing committee, and there is said to be a huge amount of latitude in creating the goals and outcomes for the conference. While I'm satisfied that this is being driven locally and not from DC, organizing for this has intentionally been below radar, and that's set off some alarms for people. If we're really about building a movement to end homelessness, we need more transparency and discussion and less secrecy and control.

That said, here's some stuff for conference organizers to consider, since they never asked.
  • Churches have been doing this work for a long time, and in most cases don't have a lot of resources themselves. Whatever thoughts people are having about churches being the backbone of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness needs a serious reality check. Earth to CEHKC: The mainline churches are in decline and mostly composed of those old enough to have voted for Kennedy. The evangelicals are interested in other things and the mega-churches have perverted Jesus into some kind of an Amway salesman for God, where if you pray hard enough, you'll be rewarded with a new Ford Explorer. This strategy has its limits.
  • The Bush administration is engaged in a structural reassignment of responsibility for managing the wreckage of robber baron capitalism, and they're not it. But they love churches. Love, love, love. And Phil Mangano's got that God-talk thing down cold. It's a great system. Untrammeled capitalism creates, figuratively speaking, a never ending stream of lepers, and the church folk get to line up to wash their feet. Everyone wins. The rich get richer, the faithful get an in with God, and some of the lepers get clean feet. End unfair but hopefully thought-provoking metaphor.
  • Exactly when was it that everyone turned into a total chicken shit and stopped talking about raising hell to end poverty? The Ten Year Plan, until people get a backbone and start getting real about poverty and the role of federal policy in creating inequality, is not "ending homelessness." It's managing homelessness at a higher level of sophistication with fewer government resources.
  • Ending homelessness will take new federal priorities, and that's a long hard fight that too few are talking about. The fact that we've allowed a fast-talking, disingenuous, refugee from a community theater production of The Music Man who also happens to be a shill for the Bush Administration to become the national spokesperson for "ending homelessness" is the saddest commentary on what homeless advocacy has become that I can possibly imagine. Mitch Snyder is spinning in his grave.
Last night I was at a meeting that was billed as a Progressive Roundtable. It was mostly enviros, politicos, and think tank types talking about how to build a progressive movement, and there were guests from successful progressive coalitions in Michigan and New Mexico bearing rumors of effective strategy. One described how 501(c)3 organizations who provide services need to operate at the very edges of the quite substantial amount of lobbying that is allowed. I found myself at once very excited by this rather obvious idea, and very saddened at how far this is from our reality.

If Fannie Mae wants to pay to convene a conference, we should use it to talk about how the movement to end homelessness has been co-opted by bureaucrats and rendered about as politically threatening as a newborn kitten. We can hold the conference at a Catholic church. Then we can all make our confessions and do some penance by getting off our safe and complacent asses to do some real organizing.


Pastor Rick said...

Geez Tim, it's like arguing with my wife. I can't win because she keeps throwing something new in the way, and if my argument prevails, I'm still going to suffer.

First of all, I agree that churches can't pick up the pieces of failed social policy. But those old ladies have money. Let them have some fun with it for a change.

I also agree that faith-based initiatives coming out of the current admin are scary as hell. As for the "love love love" of churches, I think it's too broad a brush. Sojourners Community? Doubtful. And that Episcopal priest who's getting IRS heat for politicking from the pulpit? scary.

Anyway, I could go on. Be careful about stereotyping evangelicals. Some of us just might be your best lefty friends, ya know?

Jesus loves you, and so does Hector, Juan and the rest.

Rick R

Anonymous said...

Mind if I agree with Tim and Rick? Sure, there are some buried treasures in congregations and not just with old ladies. That said, too many homes have been exceeding the size of Operation Nightwatch's building, and that's for two people. Corporations spend money like it's confetti so I'd say the days are long gone when we say we ought operate government as efficiently as private business. Waste is waste is waste and it seems waste is a badge of honor these days. What about the common good? Tim is right to say poverty is the crisis and I'd add that ignorant wealth is the fuel to the crisis. It is "Wall Street" (the movie), with greed the standard bearing kudo. We still think in a charity mode. How about living wages? How about that federally funded housing? How about developers building units that people making less than 30% median can afford? How about we stop ripping down so many homes or converting them to condos so someone from the burbs can have a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th getaway pad? And most of all, if we are doing this Ten Year Plan, and it seems we are, how about we just be really really honest. For instance,when we do a One Night Count and the picture isn't as pretty as we'd like it to be, let's see if the truth is more motivating than spin?

Steph said...

I am going to tread lightly here since I am currently employed by a faith based organization. It is true that the neighborhood churches are declining and the age of the parishoners is well over 50 something. The pastor of the church where Hospitality House is located and I were just discussing this yesterday. Those mega churches allow people who want to have an in with god to go in unnoticed, raise their hands, drop a dollar in the plate, sponsor a kid in another country, and overlook the homeless in the streets on their way to and from the "worship" service. While I don't think it's the responsiblity of the "little old church lady" to end homelessness, I do know that the older women who are involved with HH, do it because they think it's the right thing to do. They come from a privileged class and have no experience with homelessness. They require education and guidance in political action. But, they're willing to make a hot meal and drive it fresh from their ovens EVERY night of the year and they're willing to spend the weekend with our residents so that paid staff get every weekend off. So, while I myself don't see the government doing anything to END homelessness, nor do I think faith based intiatives are going to end homelessness, and I think it's the responibilty of EVERYONE to be aware, active and determined in gaining homefulness for every individual, I do see a bunch of church ladies willing to do something -- from cooking to writing checks. It is my firm belief that it takes partnerships with every kind of expert: a homeless individual talking to an advocate who talks to a funder, who talks to a policy maker, who talks to constituents until laws change. It is a community effort and at some point we have to remove all those middle voices and get that person who is/has experienced homelessness directly in the process of influencing policy. On our board of directors, on our staff, in our homes, at our dinner tables. Can I be a good advocate if I look at this only as my job? No way, this is my life, these are my friends. I just happened to meet them because they came to live at the place where I work. Just like I meet friends in many other places, I meet friends at work. When that concept can be embraced wholly, we will begin to change the way we think of US and THEM.

Stephany said...

My mother is a evangelical reverand, and she cannot deal with homelessness or my mentally ill daughter.

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