The Presbyterian Network to End Homelessness (PNTEH) earlier this week partnered with the National Coalition for the Homeless and the Presbyterian Hunger Program to hold two free public forums on homelessness and affordable housing in Washington, D.C.
The Sunday, Nov. 15, event at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church focused on local issues of homelessness and discussed the resources available to local leaders.
Dan DeBrucker–Cota, a PNTEH board member and ruling elder at Robinson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, N.Y., says the forums brought about both long-needed conversations and a revitalization of the organization. Due to the resignations of key volunteer staff, the network had been dormant for nearly a year.
He was impressed by what the Presbyterian churches in D.C. are doing to address the area’s homeless population. The PC(USA) Church of the Pilgrims, for instance, serves a Sunday lunch in cooperation with a breakfast served by New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Their efforts look more broadly as well, with the National Coalition for the Homeless as a tenant of the building.
Four people who were, or are currently, homeless presented on areas of advocacy and the needs of those living outside. Legal service representatives and advocates were present in addition to interfaith coalition members.
Concerns raised included:
- People are being discriminated against based on their housing status. Not having a legal residence jeopardizes their employment.
- One of the largest emergency shelters in D.C. was recently closed, which will displace approximately 1,300 people.
- Affordable housing is at a premium in D.C., and housing costs are generally high in the area.
- Many shelters are full. Others limit access based on substance abuse or mental health status.
“We’re looking at where we can go as a network to empower congregations to start with a small project and work their way through it,” says DeBrucker–Cota, describing the network’s goal of helping local populations address their contextual needs. “If a small church in D.C. can work at advocating for affordable housing, it might take congregations starting a letter writing campaign or other advocacy to open up more affordable housing. It could be as simple as advocating so homeless people aren’t discriminated against.”
“No one wakes up one day and wants to be homeless,” says says DeBrucker–Cota. “What isn’t helpful is when the condition doesn’t get addressed. When everything else falls apart—they’ve lost their job, lost their spouse, lost their house—substance abuse and mental illness can take hold.”
The Monday, Nov. 16, forum held at the United Methodist Building focused on be national issues of homelessness.
Marc Greenberg, acting PNTEH president and executive director of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing in New York City, represents 60 faith groups advocating on behalf of those living outside.
Greenberg says Monday’s forum looked at national issues that could be the beginning of a dialog for the PC(USA) and its efforts to address the causes of homelessness.
He says the group came up with two principal policy objectives:
- Create a “Homeless Bill of Rights” in conjunction with the National Coalition for the Homeless to address issues that directly affect homeless people.
- Educate and advocate for the National Housing Trust Fund, a national low-income housing policy. Encourage states to set up their own housing trust funds so they can receive federal trust fund money.
“One very successful effort we can point to is the effort to end homelessness among veterans,” says Greenberg of the national plan to assist veterans. “It’s a good start. But as advocates for the homeless, we feel anyone should have the option to find affordable housing or the help they need—everyone is worthy.”
“We as a society are much better off by using a ‘housing-first’ model,” he says of the movement to provide stable living environments to those living outside prior to addressing issues that may have led to homelessness. “It’s much easier to help people with substance abuse or mental illness once they are housed. We will save money, and lives, by getting people into housing before we attempt to deal with addiction or behavioral issues.”
Compared to providing temporary shelters and emergency medical attention, Greenberg says New York City has found placing one individual in supportive housing saves around $10,000 per year. He says this savings also extends to services provided to women who’ve experienced domestic abuse.
“We have some way to go with working with mental illness and physical disability, but it doesn’t make sense to blame the victim,” says Greenberg. “If people can really get to know those individuals, I think the stigma goes away. We need to develop programs where people can work together one-on-one, to learn those people really need our compassion.”
Hoping its work will enable each Presbyterian congregation and presbytery to embrace a comprehensive approach to ending homelessness, the network says its primary goals are to support:
- compassionate responses to immediate human needs
- creative empowerment of homeless individuals
- courageous advocacy for effective and systemic policy changes (such as housing production, homelessness prevention, service provision and promotion of livable incomes)
As the Presbyterian Network to End Homelessness looks to the future, they are planning to build their network of congregations around the country to learn what people need in their local settings, sharing information and creating resources.
“We don’t have the resources to offer a lot,” says DeBrucker–Cota of their board growth, fundraising and network expansion efforts. “But we want to be the avenue to help point people in the right direction.”
“Homelessness doesn’t pick a location,” he says. “It happens in rural and urban locations, and we want to know what worked, or what didn’t work, in these areas so we can help.”
The next annual meeting of the PNTEH will be held next June at the PC(USA)’s 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Ore.
Membership, advocacy and donation information is available at the Presbyterian Network to End Homelessness website, on their PresbyNTEH Facebook page, and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and phone at 315-370-9062.