In December of 2019, Robert Marbut was appointed to be the new homeless czar for the country.
If you do a Google search about this, you’ll find numerous articles about this appointment and about the numerous criticisms against Mr. Marbut for his approach to homelessness.
Here’s one sample:
“Marbut does not adhere to the “housing first” philosophy embraced by most U.S. cities, which aim to place people experiencing homelessness into stable, supportive housing before working to address any medical, financial, or substance abuse issues. This method is not only proven to help people stay housed, as it’s easier to tackle other issues once someone has a safe, stable place to sleep, but it also saves cities money by avoiding costly public expenditures for emergency care.
Instead, Marbut has recommended that cities stop giving out food, criminalize sidewalk sleeping, and force homeless residents who want services to move into city-operated facilities in large temporary structures that advocates have equated to jails.”
When you search for more articles on Mr. Marbut you find a multitude of homeless advocates being critical of Mr. Marbut and his approach to homelessness, with one critic saying that Mr. Marbut’s approach is a “real life horror.”
Mr. Marbut has one approach to homelessness. It’s not the approach I would take, nor has it been the approach that our congregation is taking in tackling homelessness. Frankly, it’s demeaning and dehumanizing. And it doesn’t work. Part of Mr. Marbut’s system is about making people earn everything to the point that at the shelter he ran in New Orleans:
“…access to the 1,000 beds must be earned. People entering the shelter must sleep on mats in an outdoor courtyard and can only move inside after participating in services like job training, education, and substance abuse counseling. Breaking rules like missing curfew can mean getting demoted back to the courtyard.”
Thankfully there are many different ways to dealing with homelessness. Housing First is a system that has worked well in many cases. In the housing first model, people are given housing and in doing so, it opens people to less anxiety. It allows them to spend their time and attention trying to resolve the numerous other issues they face on a daily basis. It keeps people healthier and out the emergency departments. In the long run, it is much cheaper to house people, rather than to keep them out of housing.
While I don’t have the ability to house people, I do have another approach – a ministry of presence. Our congregation doesn’t have the resources to house people. But we show up where people who are experiencing homelessness are. We get to know them, listen to their story. We do laundry with them. We eat with them. We worship with them. We make sure they get showers. We offer what supplies we have. We give away many sleeping bags. We talk. We listen. We worship together. We try to connect people with resources and services – at least for those who want them. They aren’t they or them at all. They are us and we are them.
We don’t make people earn dinner. We don’t make them earn clean clothes. We don’t make them earn showers. We believe that people should be treated with dignity and value. We believe that people have names and stories and lives. We believe that people should be empowered to make decisions for their lives. We believe we can’t fix people – we’re broken too, just in different ways. We believe we are called to be with these people and see the image of God in each person we encounter. And we blessed by them too.
And the crazy thing about all of this is that this works. In several instances, we’ve been able to help people get off the streets and out of living in their vehicles and start living in apartments and houses. We don’t have a ton of resources. But we have something else – we have faith. And we share that faith with people. We have a ministry of presence – being present with those who need someone to recognize that they exist and are human beings.
Regardless of what happens at the federal level, we’ll keep doing our ministry of presence. We’ll keep living out our faith. And I’m willing to bet, we’ll keep seeing results – that people’s lives are transformed, that people are becoming part of a community that cares for one another, that people are relearning to trust others, that people actually care whether someone is alive or dead, that people deserve dignity, that everyone has a story, and that all are welcome at God’s table – even when that table is a truck stop diner where communion is shared.