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One Nation Under God

Thursday, May 1, 1997

Jay and his eight-months-pregnant wife, Connie, both former crack users, moved into a temporary apartment managed by the Interfaith Housing Coalition, an employment and housing program for homeless families in Dallas. Within a week, Jay had broken one of the conditions for entering and remaining in the program: He was caught using drugs.


A Dallas program uses teams of church volunteers to get the homeless into jobs and housing.


Jay got a stern warning from Ben Beltzer, Interfaith's founder, along with some help getting into a drug rehabilitation center. His wife and five-year-old son stayed in the apartment free of charge through the birth of the baby. Within two weeks of Jay's return, he was caught using drugs again.

Now he comes to Beltzer with his daughter, thrusting the baby toward him and pleading, "You're not going to put her out on the streets, are you?"

Beltzer looks at him clear-eyed. "No. You are."

This may be one of the nation's toughest of tough-love approaches to helping the homeless. Participants are expected to complete educational training, get a job, find permanent housing, and save $1,200--all in three months. But for most of the 800 men and women who have graduated from the program, it was just tough enough. One independent study shows that two out of three graduates are still off the dole and off the streets two years later.

Some residents get the message even if they don't graduate. Within two hours of Jay's second drug infraction, the whole family had to leave the program. Connie learned the tough-love lesson from getting kicked out of Interfaith. Today, although Jay is still using crack, she is now clean. She has a job, her own apartment, and full custody of both her children.

Most of the residents at the Interfaith Housing Coalition, the majority of whom are welfare mothers, cannot turn their lives around without a great deal of help. They need more than job skills; they need basic life skills. Each Interfaith resident receives intensive individual attention from 10 people, who help lift them out of dependency. Two full-time staff members guide the daily job search, while two mentors coach each resident on employment skills. Two more mentors work with each resident on personal budgeting. Others teach family and parenting skills, nutrition, and comparative shopping. A case manager and child-care volunteers round out the team. The professional staff of 10 is augmented by 250 volunteers, who come from 28 Dallas congregations. Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, and Catholics work side by side. With 10 people helping each resident, it's all but impossible to fall through the cracks.

 

It's Not for Everybody

A few hours after arriving at the Interfaith Housing Coalition with her two young daughters, a young woman--let's call her Maria--is sitting in the comfortable living room in the agency's main building. She has spent the past three weeks in a home for battered women after leaving a nine-year marriage of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Starting over alone doesn't look easy, but she believes it's better than living in a domestic war zone.

Maria receives an introduction to Interfaith from Carter Holston, a long-time volunteer. "Interfaith is not for everybody," he tells her, explaining that the group requires a comprehensive interview, information about her family history, and a drug test. Applicants who test positive--as about 40 percent do--are referred to a drug-treatment program. They may not apply to Interfaith until they have kicked their drug habit. the program takes most of the remaining applicants if they show a flicker of willingness to be held accountable for their behavior. Maria shows that spark.

Holston is one of 250 volunteers, called "co-partners," who work with the full-time staff of 10. "We're nearly all volunteers," he tells Maria. "Nobody is paying us to come and be here. We're here for the right reasons--because we care about you. We get a lot out of seeing you succeed."

When Maria arrives at her apartment, one of 36 owned by the agency, she finds it tastefully furnished, with cheery lighting and pictures on the wall. The refrigerator and pantry are stocked with food. Dinner is ready, and her host family welcomes her to what will be her home for the next three months. She will pay no rent.

Tomorrow morning the staff will check to see if Maria and her children need medical care, dental work, or eyeglasses. If so, Interfaith will provide them. They will each receive three complete outfits of clothes and shoes, if they have none of their own, and one week of groceries. Maria will not receive money.

The following day, she will begin her job search in earnest. All residents must report each morning to the job-search area dressed appropriately and ready to work. Finding employment becomes their eight-hour-a-day job. Each resident occupies a cubicle with a telephone and a set of telephone directories. With the assistance of the staff, residents use a computer and a photocopier to prepare professional resumes and fax them to prospective employers. Each one must make at least five appointments by 11 a.m. and then spend the rest of the work day going to job interviews.

The staff and the employment co-partners teach the residents effective telephone manner, coach them on how to introduce themselves, encourage them to go out with a winning attitude, and help them deal with disappointment. Those with literacy problems seek work in cafeterias or dry-cleaning establishments while they learn to read.

The results are dazzling. Residents typically find jobs within 21 working days, most paying at least $7.50 an hour. Only full-time employment with benefits is acceptable.

 

Tough But Fair

Welfare recipients who land jobs, however, often have trouble keeping them; many still lack a work ethic or an ability to manage their personal finances. The Interfaith staff teaches these life skills. The residents, however, are not coddled. "They are taught to make choices," Beltzer says. "Tough love is adjusting to responsibility. For most of the residents, that involves a lot of adjusting: no alcohol, no drugs, no visits from the opposite sex. No fighting or guns. They have to come to class and to job search every day. They can't be late, and there are no excuses."

Of those accepted in the program, 70 percent make it through the full three months. Of these, all leave with a job and a place to live. They also leave with a changed attitude.

"I've learned while working with the poor that they don't want something for nothing," Beltzer says. "Their self-esteem grows when they give and when they work. No one has ever let them know the potential they have."

An Atlanta consultant came to Dallas to check Interfaith's reputation among welfare recipients and the homeless. He posed as a homeless man, didn't shower for two weeks, and talked to people on the street. The word on Interfaith, he reported, was that it is tough but fair. The street people told him, "If you don't want to get your act together, don't go."

Katrina, who has been a resident at Interfaith for two months, appears for her Thursday evening class on employment. She is one of the few residents who is married and living with her spouse. He has found a night job, and she has just started as a receptionist.

With two jobs, three kids, and no car, it's a logistical nightmare. Katrina is up at 5 a.m. and on the 6:11 bus with the children to drop them off at school and day care, before going to work. When she returns with them after 5 p.m., her husband has already left for work.

Jim Maloney, who meets with Katrina tonight, has been volunteering for the past five years. They discuss her apartment search. Early on, Katrina's mentors helped her set personal goals for independence: save $2,000, learn how to budget, and get a job. Now four weeks away from leaving the program, she has achieved the latter two, and is on the way to her savings target.

Learning to make a budget and stick to it was rough. "The way I spent before," she says, "I didn't know where it went." But for two months she has had to account in writing for every cent to her budget co-partners, who are tough taskmasters. "They drilled it into me," laughs Katrina. "Is it a need or is it a want?"

 

Hearing the Call

As welfare reform takes effect, Beltzer contends, the aid of religious communities is desperately needed. Their approach insists that alleviating poverty involves much more than providing education or job skills. It means addressing spiritual needs. "If the Spirit isn't at work in the staff and the volunteers," he says, "we're just another social service. We are Christ's people responding to a call."

Responding to the call quite often means healing broken lives. Adults and children alike arrive here battered not only in body but also in mind and spirit. Interfaith staff provide pastoral and therapeutic counseling.

The agency runs a deceptively cheerful play-therapy room for kids who have been abused. A therapist works with them to reverse the damage, assisted by volunteers whose task is to hold the children and rock with them. One volunteer comes to read to them, another teaches them tennis. "The greatest gift we have to give is love," Beltzer says. "Unconditionally."

Interfaith accepts no government money toward its $690,000 budget. Beltzer once returned a government check for $15,000, balking at the boxful of forms he had to fill out--and the regulations that went with it. "No way," he says. "There are too many strings." One string seriously harmful to the program would be removing the faith component. "Accepting government money would limit our ability to express our faith. We're not just doing social service," he says. "We're doing this because we're Christ's people and following our Lord. That's why it's so successful."

Another problem would be enforcing accountability. Interfaith residents who miss classes or do drugs are told to leave the program. Not so with government-subsidized programs. Says Beltzer, "If I accepted government funding, they would require that I go through an eviction process," undermining the program's emphasis on consequences.

The agency's tough-minded approach is gaining ground. There are now 14 transitional housing programs in other cities emulating the Interfaith model. It has been singled out by IBM as one of six exemplary charity programs in the country. It was selected to receive the top 1996 Samaritan Award, along with $10,000, from the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Interfaith stays in touch with former residents, offering help and continued friendship. Many return for visits, including Linda, a woman Ben had booted out of the program. "Why did I kick you out?" he asks, trying to place her among hundreds of former residents.

"Because of drugs," she says. "And I want to thank you."

Linda and her husband had been living in one of the agency's apartments for a month when both were caught using drugs. When they refused to leave with their three children, Beltzer called the police.

Two years on the streets, however, convinced Linda that Beltzer and his colleagues were right: "If things were going to change, I had to change." She checked herself into a drug rehab program and kicked her drug habit. She eventually left her addict husband, who is now in jail. Today Linda has found a job, left welfare, and regained custody of her children.

She tells Beltzer: "You are the only people who held my feet to the fire and didn't tolerate my behavior."