Monday, July 11, 2016

God's Sharing Economy: How to End Homelessness, a Biblical and Practical Perspective

 This is a talk that Jill and I gave at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, which has an evening service
Charla Bolton with Jill and me
every Sunday night at 7 pm for homeless people and members of the congregation. Around twenty-five people take part in this simple but deeply moving service, with takes place in an intimate setting, with a fire place, couches, and cafe tables. There are hymns, communion and a common meal. We feel Christ's presence in this place and are grateful to the Church and to Sharla Bolton, a deeply compassionate Christian who is one of the organizers of this precious gathering. This evening we also celebrated her birthday. Happy birthday, Charla!

Here's what we shared:

JILL: Tonight we are going to share with you some good news. It is God's intention to end homelessness, and this is actually happening in some parts in the United States. We're going to share with you how ending poverty is one of the goals of the Gospel, and how we each have the privilege in God’s kingdom playground, to do our part in sync with God’s intention.
Thursday, August 27, 2015, Governor Malloy announced that the State of Connecticut has been designated by the federal government as being the first state in the nation to have ended chronic homelessness among veterans.[i] Utah is close to being the second.
In late 2013, the city of Phoenix announced it had found homes for all of its chronically homeless veterans using the Housing First approach. Since then, New Orleans, Houston, and Philadelphia, are among the 19 cities have ended homelessness for veterans. Some cities are now setting goals for ending other populations of homelessness, i.e. for families.
Here in Pasadena we are getting closer to ending homelessness. Only a few years ago we had 1,216 unhoused in Pasadena, today only 530 people were counted as being homeless.
For many of us, it can often seem too overwhelming to stop and give every homeless man or woman a dollar, let alone a home.  Although study after study has shown that it costs states and cities more money to leave homeless people on the street than it does to give them a place to stay. There is one unhoused person whom they call million dollar Murry. With all the police calls, hospital visits, detox center visits and more, he was costing society a million dollars a year. It is actually much cheaper and more effective to house those without a home. National Best practice and evidenced based research now shows us that once housed, then real healing can begins to take place.[ii]
So how can we help this healing process and end homelessness here in Pasadena? Margaret McAustin, Pasadena’s District 2 City Council representative, understands how the Housing First approach ends homelessness and that permanent supportive housing is part of how this model works. When given the opportunity to supply this kind of housing in her district, she told her constituents that she had decided this would be in her district. She had the kind of determination, and the generous and cheerful giving attitude that the Apostle Paul asks us to have in 2 Cor. 8-9.
        In these passages it declares that there is enough. There is enough land, enough housing and enough of what we need… if we share. My favorite theologian Ched Myers says this:(1)
      1.The world as created by God is abundant, with enough for everyone— provided that human communities restrain their appetites and live within limits;
2.            Disparities in wealth are not “natural” but the result of human sin, and must be mitigated within the community of faith through the regular practice of wealth redistribution;
3.          The prophetic message calls people to the practice of such redistribution, and is thus characterized as “good news” to the poor.[iii]   

In 2 Cor. 8-9 the Apostle Paul lays out for us the purpose of money and how to use it. To make one of his points he quotes from the ancient Hebrew text in Exodus 16.  He refers to the manna miracle in the wilderness, saying, 

“Those who gathered a lot had nothing left over,
             and those who gathered only a little had enough.”

First, every family is told to gather just enough bread for their needs (Ex 16:1618). Too often we are over housed, with more space than we need. When I was director if the STARS program at Lake Ave Church, I was driving with some of the low income STARS kids through a Pasadena neighborhood with huge mansion-like homes. One student said, “There must be a lot of people who live in these homes!” and I countered, “probably not, perhaps just an older couple.”  That is when one of the students said, “Oh, they must be so lonely!”
This idea of enough is in contrast to the oppression of Israel in Egypt as slaves.  Here in the desert, everyone has enough.  In God’s economy there is such a thing as “too much” and “too little”— in contrast with modern capitalism’s infinite tolerance for wealth and poverty.  
Second, this manna should not be “stored up” (Ex 16:19-20).  Wealth and power in Egypt was defined by surplus accumulation—after all, Israel’s forced labor consisted of building “store-cities” gathered from the  tribute of Pharaoh’s subjects (Ex 1:11).  Israel is challenged by God to keep wealth circulating through strategies of redistribution, not concentrating it through strategies of accumulation.  
The third instruction introduces Sabbath discipline (Ex 16:22-30).  “Six days you shall gather; but on the seventh, which is a Sabbath, there will be none” (Ex 16:5,26).  The prescribed periodic rest for the land and from human labor—expanded the 49th year, the Jubilee or Sabbath year—functions to disrupt human attempts to control nature and maximize the forces of production.  Because the earth belongs to God and its fruits and land are a gift, the people should justly distribute those fruits, instead of seeking to own and hoard them.  [iv]
So what did Margaret McAustin have to give? She had city owned land in her district she could offer. She had the authority to make the decision and she had compassion knowing what it takes to end homelessness.   
God challenged Moses to consider what he had to deliver his people. He had a staff. Even though he was reluctant, he had a voice, but likely stuttered, yet he was willing to do God’s will.  
God is challenging us today. What do we have? Many people have extra rooms or back houses they share on Airbnb or other vacation rental sites to help make ends meet. They are open to welcoming the stranger. This also provides some sorely needed income for some to be able to stay in Pasadena. Some share their cars, giving of their time to provide a lift for folks. But if there are too many folks sharing their homes and cars for profit without any limits, it can tend to push up rental costs, tighten the number of available units for rent, foster greed and hurt the taxi companies.
God prescribes limits to wealth. If we take too much manna it will rot. Those who don’t get their homer full of manna need to ask others to share what they have. Not to sit and feel sorry for ourselves, but actively seek meet our needs. Often the hardest thing or me to do is know what I need and ask for it, with love and grace.
What do we have to share in Pasadena to end homelessness? Seventy percent of Pasadena is single family homes, many with space in our back yards where we could build a granny flat and offer it up like in the book of Acts, sharing our homes with those who have none. Our housing director is offering to help folks build these back houses in exchange for renting them to a Section 8 voucher holder.  We have had the joy of sharing a small back house with a formerly homeless friend for over three years.
What else do we have? Like Margaret McAustin, and like Moses and Paul, we too have a voice and authority as citizens to ask to city to use the city-owned land for housing for permanent supportive housing for the homeless. HUD has the money for this kind of housing. But this cannot be accessed without land to build it on. We need a commitment from all the city council members to set aside a portion of land in each district. In Pennsylvania they require a set aside of land for affordable housing. We could actually end homelessness here in Pasadena if we follow this example. We have land and we have our stories. Some of us here today are homeless. Your stories could be the very stories that open the hearts of our leaders. But they must be told.
Let’s look a bit closer at our passage for this evening. Just before Paul quotes from Exodus about sharing manna in vs. 14 he provides the purpose of such sharing,

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. 2 Cor. 8:14

Equality is a key goal 2 Cor. 8-9. It’s not God’s intention that we have an unequal society. These chapters tell is that there is enough if we share, and it tells us how to share, with joy.  Freedom to enjoy giving without fear of property values or what neighbors may think. The joy of following hard after God, with open arms.
            When I married Anthony five years ago, I also married into his abundance of friends. I have asked him to share the amazing story of how helped to get one homeless couple housed.

Why does it take seven years, two activists, two churches, a mayor's intervention and a miracle to house one disabled homeless Christian woman and her boyfriend?

ANTHONY: I would like to share with you a story of a homeless couple who gave me far more than I gave them.  I first met them at a little Methodist church in Torrance that was pastored by my wife Kathleen Ross. Melissa and Shaun came to our Bible studies and to our  homeless feeding program. Melissa was a cheerful, blue-eyed blonde young woman who always smiled, and her boyfriend Shaun had a great sense of humor. They were living on the street and we would help them out by paying for a motel room on Saturday nights so they could come to church feeling clean and rested

I really like them both because they were fun to be around and had a deep faith in Christ. This faith was remarkable because they had to face many tough challenges. Melissa was born with a genetic illness called neurofibromatosis, a degenerative disease of the nerves that was causing her to lose her sight and mobility. She was wobbly when we first met her, and soon needed a wheelchair, like her father.  At that point, she started receiving SSI, but the $900 per month she received wasn’t enough to pay for food and lodging so she and Shaun would panhandle and seek help from churches like ours. They often ended up sleeping on the street.

Because we wanted our Sunday school kid to hear first-hand what it’s like to be homeless, we invited Melissa and Shaun to speak to them. I’ll never forget their profound reflection on the story of Job. They told us Job had a home and a family and good health, but he lost everything and became homeless. His friends came to him while he was living on the street and asked, “What have you done wrong?” Melissa and Shaun could relate to this story because since they became Christians, they didn’t do alcohol or drugs. They were kind and shared with other homeless people what little they had. Yet many people treated them as if they had done something wrong by being homeless. Indeed, many cities like Torrance have laws that criminalize homeless behavior, like sleeping on the street or in a car, or panhandling.

Kathleen and I did what we could to help Melissa and Shaun, but our relationship with them changed when Kathleen contracted cancer. After twenty wonderful years of marriage, Kathleen and I went on a cancer journey together that took up all our time and energy. Initially the doctors were hopeful, and so were we, but the cancer was persistent and Kathleen decided to have a stem cell transplant. She had a reaction so severe she ended up on a feeding tube in ICU.  Melissa was so upset she called and left twenty two messages on my answering machine. During the two weeks Kathleen was in ICU, she was conscious for only a couple of hours. My last words to her were about Melissa and Shaun. Kathleen died a week later.

Melissa and Shaun were heart-broken by Kathleen’s death, and I visited them soon afterwards. We grieved and cried together and I realized that we had become family. Because Melissa’s biological family had rejected her, she started calling me her “Father in Christ.”

I vowed to do everything possible to get my daughter in Christ housed, and thought it would be easy since I had received a generous check from my wife’s life insurance. Even though I offered to pay a deposit, and to subsidize her rent, no landlord would rent to her because her SSI check was less than the rent in Torrance. Her only hope was to get on the waiting list for Section 8.  

Once they got on the Section 8 waiting list, it took five years to get vouchers. We were overjoyed when she finally got them, but she had only two months to find a place. We mobilized people from two churches to help her but it proved impossible to find an accessible apartment that would accept a Section 8 voucher.  

Jeehye Kim
By this time I was blessed with a new wife, Jill, who cares deeply about homeless people and leads workshops on housing justice. Two years ago she led a workshop on housing justice for a Korean congregation and the pastor’s wife Jeehye was profoundly inspired by Jill’s message that sometimes God calls us to speak truth to power when injustices occur. Melissa’s Section 8 voucher was about to expire and she would have to wait many more years for another opportunity to get another voucher, so after much soul-searching Jeehye decided to call the Mayor of Torrance and ask him to meet with her and Melissa.

Jeehye was accompanied with Roy Currence, an elder in the Methodist church, as well as Melissa. They also brought a petition, signed by over 100 church members, calling for the Section 8 voucher to be extended.  The Mayor was a very kind man who liked Melissa and was impressed by the petition. 

“I’d like to help,” he said, “but Section 8 is a federal program and I don’t have any power to influence them.” 

Roy responded calmly, “Mr Mayor, you do have power. The power of your office. You can go down to the office of Section 8 and tell them what you want.” 

The Mayor agreed and went to the Section 8 office and found a sympathetic official willing to extend Melissa’s Voucher indefinitely. This almost never happens. We felt this was a miracle, the answer to our prayers.

It took a lot of prayer and work to get Melissa housed. In fact, it took another five months to find an accessible apartment that would accept her voucher. We realized that policies need to change to make it possible for homeless people like Melissa to become housed.

At Christmas, we invited the Mayor to a Christmas party at the Methodist Church so we could give him a certificate of appreciation and also talk to him about housing policy. He met with us in the sanctuary for nearly an hour, and he told us that he had decided to start a special task force to address homelessness in the city of Torrance. We were very pleased.

During this seven-year effort to get Melissa and Shaun housed, we learned a lot. If we truly want to end homelessness, people with homes need to work together with homeless people, just as Paul says in his letter to Corinthians. Melissa and Shaun not only received help, they also gave back by sharing their stories and experiences and worked hard every day to find an apartment, despite their lack of transportation. This is what God’s sharing economy is all about. Those who had cars and time shared with Melissa and Shawn. Those who have much share with those who have little so that in the end here is equality. In 2 Cor. Paul challenges us to not only our material possessions but also our hearts. Our goal as Christians is to create a community in which everyone is treated not like strangers, or problems to be addressed, but like family to be loved. This transformation begins in our hearts, and then in our church, and then in our communities, through laws and policies that are consistent with God’s laws and help us to be what God intends for us to be, compassionate human beings.

Jill will speak more about how we can change policies so that low-income and homeless people can have a better chance to be housed.  

What we can do to help end homelessness in Pasadena:

Jill: When John Wesley had his revivals, the purpose of his alter calls was both for making a new commitment to follow Christ, and to sign petitions. People would walk up to the alter to offer their signatures. Wesley was on the forefront of community transformation at all levels of society. Tonight I am asking you to consider a commitment to one of three things that will go a long way in ending homelessness in our community.

1.     Be part of a team to find those willing to share land in their backyards to build granny flats in exchange for Section 8.
2.     Be part of team that would ask the city to set aside land for permanent supportive housing for the homeless
3.     Many advocates believe a Housing Commission is necessary to move the agenda forward for more affordable housing. To come this Thursday to a friendly debate about the pros and cons of having a housing Commission for the City of Pasadena, 630-8:30 at the Housing Office above Vons on the corner of Orange Grove and N. Fair Oaks. 

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