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Arise, Take Up Thy Mat, and Walk

Sunday, September 1, 1996

Spend a little time in virtually any city in America and you'll see them -- in doorways, under bridges, poking through trash cans, begging for loose change. They are America's homeless. They no longer wear the face of the 55-year-old alcoholic man; they look more and more like young crack addicts, battered women and children, prostitutes, gamblers, and AIDS sufferers. On any given day, about 600,000 people are living either on the streets or in shelters trying to stay alive.

          Americans are a compassionate people. But traditional approaches to the problem--promoted through government initiatives and many private charities -- have been so ineffective at treating the fundamental causes of homelessness that we must reconsider what it means to help our neighbors in need.


Most homeless programs fail because they protect lifestyles that produce homelessness and neglect the moral and spiritual means to overcome it.


          Many government programs assume that homelessness is simply the absence of four walls and a roof. Usually it is not: The lack of affordable housing, though a problem, is not why most of these people have no permanent address. Most people in trouble economically have friends and families whose homes they could share temporarily if they choose to. The level of government spending on the problem likewise leaves deeper issues untouched. There are more than 60 separate federal programs that provide some form of help. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) now operates homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation programs in every major city in the United States. But the rates at which the able-bodied homeless graduate to independence from these programs rarely rise above single digits.

          America need not settle for this level of failure. If anyone can testify to that, we can.

          The International Union of Gospel Missions -- whose staff members often emerge from the ranks of the formerly homeless -- has been helping the destitute break the cycle of dependence since 1913. Last year, our emergency services and long-term rehabilitation programs helped 14,000 homeless men and women achieve self-sufficiency. These were not "easy" cases. Thousands walked into our doors addicted to alcohol, heroin, crack cocaine, and other drugs. Many have been prostitutes, or veterans who couldn't adjust to civilian life. Many have committed crimes, served time in prison, and failed other rehabilitation programs.

          Our experience teaches us that America needs nothing less than a reformation in the way we think about homelessness. Many traditional and government-funded approaches fail not for lack of money but for a deficit of vision: They do not treat the whole person. They neglect the familial and moral aspects of a person's life. They refuse to challenge the homeless person's fundamental way of thinking. Says Rev. Mickey Kalman, the executive director of City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City: "The philosophy of government homeless programs is to respect and protect lifestyles that produce homelessness."

          Most significantly, these programs ignore the central dimension of the problem -- the spiritual. After more than 35 years of trying to help homeless people with every imaginable problem, I cannot escape this fact: Men and women who walk away from their jobs, their families, and their homes do so because, fundamentally, they are turning away God and His claim on their lives. But government-funded policies, by definition, must exclude this vital dynamic from the discussion. It is a prescription predestined for failure.

          Not only are government approaches not working, but government regulations continue to impede or thwart the most innovative programs. Labor laws, zoning issues, licensing requirements are all getting in the way of private, religiously based efforts to deliver effective care. Authorizing block grants and returning power to the states will not by themselves make much of a difference, because it's state and local governments that throw up some of the most egregious obstacles to our faith-based shelter programs. Moreover, much of government's regulatory itch is aggravated by blindness to the moral and spiritual causes of homelessness.

          What follows are some of the dynamics of change: We make sure that these elements are present in all of our 245 rescue missions in the 210 cities in which we operate nationwide. Though our missions offer various educational, job-training, relational, and other skills, these three principles establish an ethical and religious foundation without which all our other efforts would amount to nothing.

The Faith Factor

          It is very difficult to overstate the importance of the spiritual aspect of this problem. Spiritual renewal is the fountainhead for personal transformation.

          Enoch Walker was married and had a child he loved, a job he enjoyed, and a house in Washington, D.C. Then he began abusing alcohol and drugs, what he calls "the great removers" in his life, because they became more important to him than his family and friends. Soon his wife left him, taking their child. He became so abusive that even his dog left him. He lost his job, smashed his car, and started living on the streets.

          Walker went through several rehabilitation programs. He doesn't know the precise number because he doesn't even remember some of them. Yet each time, he slipped back into addiction. "When I was functional, I would put on a nice three-piece suit and go and get the good jobs," he says. "But it was like putting a three-piece suit on a fish. Nothing would happen on the inside."

          Then he checked himself into the Gospel Rescue Ministries of Washington, D.C. There, he received not only mental and physical counseling, but something else -- spiritual guidance. As he says, "They reached my heart and . . . gave me an awakening." He has now been clean for three years, and is a self-employed carpenter with two other men working for him.

          Walker's story is important because his background is so typical of America's homeless population. Homeless advocates are quick to point out that many of the homeless suffer serious or acute mental illness. They are correct. There are no easy answers for how to help heal these people and restore balance and normality to their lives. Many of them may never leave an institutionalized or group-home setting.

          The mentally ill, however, do not make up the majority of the people who walk into our centers. About 80 percent of the homeless who enter the City Mission in Cleveland, for example, show symptoms of substance abuse. At our Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids, Michigan, perhaps 90 percent struggle with addictions that have helped spawn and sustain a whole set of destructive attitudes and behaviors. There is simply no way to get at those behaviors without first helping the addict break his or her addiction for good. Most government and traditional shelter rehabilitation programs are notoriously poor in curing addictions. Many do not even try.

          But those that do suffer from a crucial flaw. Although grounded in the best of intentions, federal programs by law can only administer to mental and physical maladies, not the spiritual. Any homeless programs that receive federal funds "must provide shelter and other eligible activities in a manner free from religious influence," writes Michael Stover, HUD's assistant general counsel for the Rocky Mountain region, in a 1995 legal brief. "It may not provide religiously oriented services to persons using the homeless shelter and must not hire only persons from a particular religious persuasion." There it is: an explicit rejection of faith as the crucial component of change. This is why the overwhelming majority of our mission directors steer clear of government funding.

          We've seen countless people wander into our shelters with a mind-wrenching addiction to crack cocaine, for example, and it's obvious to us that it takes more than physical and mental counseling to break that grip. Simply telling that addict to eat his vegetables and study the multiplication tables just isn't enough. Ask any of our mission directors, many of whom have 20 to 30 years experience helping the homeless: The spectrum of addictions and difficulties from which the homeless suffer have no long-term cure outside of a heartfelt commitment of faith.

          "Skid Row is not a geographical location," says Kalman, a former drug addict. "It's a heart condition. Unless you change a homeless individual's heart -- not just his mind and body -- he will remain homeless."

          For this reason, all of our missions instill in homeless people the reality of a God who loves them, cares for them, and wants to help change them. In our view, based not only on our theology but on our experience, it is Jesus Christ, not any program, who transforms a man's or woman's life, who gives them the strength to summon the courage to break their destructive habits.

A Moral Incubator

          Hand in hand with faith commitment is the sustained determination -- both from shelter staff and the homeless themselves -- to stay clean, hold down a job, or save a marriage. The homeless need an environment in which they are challenged to acknowledge and consistently renounce unhealthy behaviors; otherwise, they won't acquire the practical or emotional skills they need to succeed.

          Mouthing a religious commitment is not enough; there must be actions to match. Our shelters insist not on perfection, but on repeated, good-faith efforts to change. And with God's grace, and a disciplined environment, they do. "We not only place responsibility on our clients," says Rev. Carl Resener, the executive director of the Nashville Union Rescue Mission, "we demand that, as a condition of living at the mission and participating in its programs, these men and women change their destructive habits."

          This is one reason our shelter programs span several months. It gives the homeless time not only to rid themselves of their addictions, but also to build a foundation of faith, education, and social skills necessary to succeed in life. Consider our Regeneration Program at our Miami Rescue Mission. Rev. Frank Jacobs, the executive director, oversees an eight-month recovery program for 130 men. Bible study is mandatory. The men commit to memory biblical passages--they call them "arsenal verses"--that address behavioral problems such as drunkenness, laziness, and theft. The mission also offers a three- to four-month period of daily instruction on coping and social skills, with a heavy emphasis on relapse prevention.

          Listen to Raymond Nastu, a drug addict arrested more than 80 times for offenses ranging from drug possession to brawling. He checked into the Bridgeport Rescue Mission in Connecticut. "I should have been dead so many times I can't keep track of them," he says. But the mission's strict regimen and climate of tough love turned him around. "I never had people care about me the way they do here, and that gave me the hope and courage to believe I could change." Today, Nastu is drug free and works as a carpenter.

          Now compare that to some of the larger shelters in the country that place virtually no conditions on their residents. The results have not been pretty. Take the Mitch Snyder Shelter, in Washington, D.C. It is named after the homeless activist whose 1983 hunger strike prompted the Reagan administration to renovate a federal building so that it could be used as a homeless shelter. As documented by a 60 Minutes expose, this shelter has been a haven for the selling of crack cocaine and liquor, as well as misuse of charitable funds and general corruption.

Friends and Family

          Our missions place a heavy emphasis on rebuilding relationships -- to one's family, friends, and religious community. Positive relationships are a vital link between the homeless and lasting rehabilitation.

          "We don't always want to put our clients back with their old friends because sometimes the old friends are the problem," says Rev. George Verley of the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul. "However, the worst thing in the world is for them to be alone, so we teach them to establish relationships. It's vital that they have this support structure when they leave us."

          This is probably one of the most overlooked elements of most traditional and government-funded shelter programs. The homeless typically are treated in utter isolation; little attempt is made to reconnect them to family members. Yet when caregivers don't know a person's family background, it often becomes much more difficult to discern the most effective ways to help.

          Many shelters, fearful of crossing church-state lines, do not even introduce the homeless to religious communities that could offer support. The Salvation Army shelters are a noteworthy exception here, but the majority of shelters have no process for helping a recovering addict plant roots in his or her community.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development says any shelter receiving federal funds must operate "free from religious influence."


          There may be no more important step for a formerly homeless person, however, than to be grounded in a community of caring, committed individuals. Listen to Enoch Walker again: "If you do not have people surrounding you who care about you and give you unconditional love and give you the time that it takes to work yourself through it and work with you, I do not really see too many people who can make it." The pressures of life, the temptations of the street, the siren call of old habits -- all can easily prove to be too much for the men and women struggling to get back on their feet.

The Government Albatross

          We know that these and other principles are crucial to effectively helping the homeless help themselves. Though we don't expect the people we serve to pay us a dime -- most couldn't -- that doesn't mean we have no expectations of them. "There are two root causes of homelessness," says Rev. Mike Edwards from the Los Angeles Mission. "Lack of relationships and lack of responsibility. Re-establishing a sense of both is key to our long-term success."

          Success for us means much more than feeding people and keeping them safe, as important as those objectives are. Our aim is to help people break their addictions, learn basic life skills, and become honest, productive members of their communities. Over the last few years, we've conducted internal studies of our programs and the results are truly encouraging: The vast majority of our missions achieve success rates of more than 50 percent, with many achieving success rates of 70 or 80 percent. That means that most of the people who graduate from one of our programs become independent; a few slip back into old habits, but most remain addiction free, employed, and connected to family and friends.

          Our success is also reflected in support from our communities. Eight years ago, the cumulative budgets of the 210 U.S.-based member missions in the International Union of Gospel Missions totaled $50 million. Today, IUGM counts 245 missions as members, and their cumulative budgets add up to more than $300 million. The overwhelming majority of our programs are funded privately, through individual donors, churches, and corporate sponsors. We don't require or expect government to lend a hand -- and it hasn't.

          Nor do we expect government to get in the way of our efforts -- but it has. There are several areas where government bureaucrats have been unsupportive or downright hostile to rescue ministries' efforts. These include labor laws, zoning issues, licensing, surplus food distribution, and disaster relief.

         v Most of their objections stem from their reading (misreading, actually) of the First Amendment's religion clauses, designed to ensure citizens' basic religious freedoms. To which we respond: If we want a person to be truly free, that person must first be free of drugs. This is the promise rescue ministry fulfills.

          Consider the following trouble areas:

         Labor. For years, rescue missions have struggled with the issue of whether homeless men and women who do work in the missions as part of rehabilitation qualify as employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. In September 1990, the Labor Department determined that the Salvation Army had to pay the minimum wage to clients performing work as part of rehabilitation, unless the Army's location registered as a "sheltered workshop." (Sheltered workshops historically have been places handicapped people went for training, not live-in facilities.)

          After much political and legal wrangling, the Labor Department suspended enforcement pending further study. The policy remains in suspension, but has not been formally revoked.

         Zoning. City and county boards have stopped or interfered with mission programs across the nation. The Denver Rescue Mission is located in an area known as Lower Downtown or "LoDo." This was formerly Denver's Skid Row, an area where the destitute congregated. In recent years, however, the area has been redeveloped and now supports a burgeoning night life.

          That welcome development has had a most unwelcome side effect: City officials have ratcheted up their efforts to curb the mission's work. For example, on cold nights, the 110-bed mission used to set up about 40 cots in the chapel to meet the increased need. City officials never raised any objection because it took people off the street. Today, city officials flatly prohibit this practice.

         City officials in Daytona Beach, Florida, have not allowed the Daytona Rescue Mission to locate within the city. The mission has gone to federal court. In Albany, New York, the Capital City Rescue Mission has been trying to relocate in order to expand its services. Recently, the city rejected the mission's request to move to a previously agreed-upon property. Other missions that have encountered significant roadblocks include the Union Gospel Missions of Dallas, Spokane, and Yakima, Washington.

         Licensing. The licensing of faith-based programs, beyond issues of health and safety, has become a major impediment to many missions' spiritual integrity. Licensing has brought regulations such as a "client's bill of rights" in Tennessee, which originally included the right not to be presented with religious teaching. (That's somewhat like organizing a football team and including the right not to be touched!)

          Then there is the case of the City Mission in Schenectady, New York. It was cited by New York's Department of Social Services because it prohibited pornographic materials from its facilities. Only after three months of negotiation did the mission and state authorities reach agreement that the mission was within its rights to prohibit pornography.

          "We determined that on health and safety issues, we would submit to government regulations," says Eivion Williams, the mission's executive director. "But this was an issue of morality -- what was right and what was wrong -- and we stood firm. And in the end, we wound up getting what we asked for."

         Food Distribution. For many years, rescue missions accepted federal surplus food and distributed it to the needy without excessive oversight or regulation. In December 1993, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture mailed a memo to missions in its Western region that stated that USDA commodities were not to be used in meals where individuals were required to attend religious services. This caused confusion among many mission directors who were uncertain how to interpret the new rules. On advice of counsel, some missions have turned down USDA commodities because they believe accepting the food would subject them to federal regulations that compromise religious teachings.

          Indeed, one of the interesting contradictions of federal policy is that schools, day-care programs, and early childhood development classes operated by churches may serve surplus food -- even though their programs are grounded in religious beliefs. The government seems to believe that children in religious programs need good food, but homeless in religious programs do not.

          Tonight 27,000 people in America are staying in rescue missions. Each is being fed, sheltered, and assisted. Last year, rescue missions served more than 28 million meals to the poor and homeless. That's enough to provide a meal to every resident in the state of California. Yet each person is also being challenged with hope and opportunity. Our rehabilitation programs involve over 11,500 men, women, and children.

          Rescue missions are poised to continue their dramatic growth and success. Drug rehabilitation programs are expanding to meet the increasing need. Computer training and educational programs are now staples at many missions, providing GED preparation, core curriculum classes, drivers education, and job training. Missions are also setting up joint ventures with local businesses to give reformed addicts on-the-job training.

          Unfortunately, our optimism at the progress of our missions is tempered by the cold realities of the street. The face of homelessness in America is changing. It is getting younger and more female. Children, once a rarity at shelters, are showing up with increasing frequency -- and this cannot bode well for American society.

          There are other problems. As Rev. Tom Laymon, the executive director of Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids, observes, "There is an aging population in our prisons that will eventually be given back to society. Many will have spent decades in prison. This means a whole new generation of 'older homeless' will be out on the streets and in need of our services."

          Amidst this trend, federal and state homeless and anti-poverty programs -- devoid of moral, spiritual, or religious counseling -- will continue to fail. The answer is not for government to get into the religion business, but, at the very least, to get out of the way of religiously based groups that are making a decisive difference in people's lives.

          We have identified more than 100 American cities with populations of over 40,000 that are without a rescue mission. In 10 years, IUGM wants to have programs in each of these. Our hope and prayer is that missions around the country will demonstrate the power of a well-rounded program that nourishes mind and body, spirit and soul.

          Rev. Stephen Burger is the executive director of the International Union of Gospel Missions. Also contributing to this article were Rev. Mike Edwards of the Los Angeles Mission, Rev. Del Maxfield of the Denver Rescue Mission, and Rev. Lee Schmookler of Goodwill Home and Missions in Newark, New Jersey.

"Hey -- I'm Hungry."

          Those involved with rescue missions know the difficulties and dangers of inner-city life. Many, like Mickey Kalman, spent years on the street -- drifting, stealing, begging, and doing drugs -- until they reached out for help. Kalman, now the executive director of City Rescue Mission in Oklahoma City, was invited to speak at the 1996 Republican National Convention, in San Diego.

          Mickey Kalman's young life centered around alcohol. "I grew up with drunks and learned to drink," he says. He joined a gang. When he wasn't travelling and getting into mischief, he found trouble locally. At one point he pulled a gun on his teacher, threatening to "blow his brains out." By the age of 12, he was on probation.

          Later Kalman got involved with drugs. "Once I ran away with a shipment of dope, sold it, and hid out in Wyoming," he remembers. "When I didn't have money for gas, I siphoned it out of construction trucks."

          One day he found himself in Stockton, California, alone and hungry. He'd been living on the streets for the better part of two years. He walked up to the door of a rescue mission and said, "Hey -- I'm hungry." The man at the mission offered Kalman some food and some work. He didn't usually get offers for work, but he agreed. Kalman decided to enter the rehabilitation program, where he found faith in God and the power to turn his life around.

          Today, Rev. Mickey Kalman oversees a mission budget of $1.4 million, with a staff of 21. Thousands are helped by his mission every year. "Rescue mission work isn't easy," he says. "It's hard to love some of the people who come to us . . . [but] when they knock, I say, 'Come on in. My name is Mickey Kalman. How would you like to stick around and do a little work?'"

Missions of Mercy

          The Fresh Start Program (Los Angeles Mission). Fresh Start has become a beacon of hope for addicts on L.A.'s Skid Row. Designed at the Los Angeles Mission, this 12- to 18-month program offers personal counseling, work therapy, a computerized learning center, physical education, and Bible study. Approximately 200 men are enrolled. Graduates of Fresh Start have set up an Alumni Association to assist with the transition back into the community. Over the last four years, 68 percent of graduates have left the streets, have established a residence and gotten involved in a local church, and have gained employment and stayed with that job for at least one year. Cost: $35 per person per day.

          New Life Rehabilitation (Denver Rescue Mission). New Life Rehabilitation is a 6- to 24-month program for approximately 100 men and women. This five-stage program focuses on setting and meeting goals -- personal, educational, and behavioral. To help with the transition to the outside, the mission has a manufacturing business, Harvest Industries, in which recovering addicts earn money assembling musical products for a local corporation, Ultimate Support Systems. For single mothers and children, there is Champa House, which teaches educational and parenting skills while allowing each mother to work through her own personal issues. Cost: Less than $30 per person per day.

         Harvest Home (Haven of Rest Ministries in Akron, Ohio). Harvest Home is an emergency shelter for homeless women and children. In addition to food and clothing, it provides a variety of rehabilitative services including computer-enhanced education classes, parenting and life-skills training, individual counseling, expressive art therapy, and Bible study. Roughly 80 percent of Harvest Home's clients are chemically dependent when they arrive. Cost: About $35 per person per day.

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