The role of faith-based organizations in providing aid to homeless communities
Allison Zoe Schneider
This article aims to identify where support for those who are homeless comes from and analyze the relationship between communities of faith and communities of persons who are homeless. Camp Quixote, a tent community for the homeless in Olympia, Washington, began and has continued to exist with substantial aid from local faith-based organizations. The role of faith-based organizations in aiding this specific homeless community is given as an example of the strong ties between religious and homeless communities.
This past April I began an internship at Camp Quixote, a tent community for individuals who are homeless in Thurston County. Before this internship, I thought about homelessness only when I was confronted with it on a street corner. I’d always feeling guilty for not helping those I see in need, but it’s easy to feel guilty for a minute, and then to forget for weeks following. My internship at Camp Quixote allowed me to help those in need without wondering if my help was doing more harm than good, it gave me the opportunity to know the man on the street corner as someone with a name and a story, and it taught me to care—not to feel guilty.
The hours I spent at the Camp were spent mostly at the host desk, monitoring the entrance to the camp and accepting incoming donations (the Camp is required to be monitored 24-hours a day). On my first day, I was a little scared despite how simple the job of hosting is. I’m female, fairly small, and only 19—whereas most of Camp Quixote’s residents are older and male. Suffice it to say, though entirely irrational, my white, middle-class stereotypes kicked in on my first day, though they were proved wrong immediately upon my arrival. Every time I came to Camp Quixote, I was welcomed with smiles and warmth (literally, the residents were very adamant about providing me with a heater on cold days.) I feel honored to have been so accepted into a community so different from my own because what I learned from it was immeasurable.
My white, middle-class biases aren’t the only ones I carry. As someone raised in two very liberal and agnostic/atheist households, I hold unfair judgments about religious organizations. Camp Quixote, as I immediately noticed, has a strong bond with the faith community in Thurston County. My lack of knowledge and experience of religion made this a startling, though fascinating, realization—one I was interested in exploring further, though immediately wary of. Religion has an often-earned bad reputation, but my research into the collaboration between Thurston County’s faith-based organizations and Camp Quixote has proved that religion, in some cases, is deserving of an earned good reputation as well.
Camp Quixote exists as a community within a community; a sub-community of the community at large, Camp Quixote interacts with other sub-communities, contributing to the structure of the Thurston County community. My internship allowed me to analyze Camp Quixote’s place in this structure, and my findings were initially difficult for me to understand. I have written this paper as an exploration of my own questions about the relationship between religious communities and communities of homeless individuals. I present my research not as an expert, but as a fellow human being interested in analyzing community-to-community relationships and their effect on changing conditions for those who are homeless and impoverished.
Camp Quixote, named after Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, provides about 25-30 individuals with shelter and community. It is supported by the local non-profit organization Panza, but is self-governed and self-maintained. The camp resides in the parking lots of local faith-based organizations, but its location is temporary, as it is required to move every 90 days.
In February of 2007 Thurston County’s homeless community came together to protest an ordinance preventing people from residing on sidewalks. The protest began in a parking lot in downtown Olympia, and would eventually lead to the creation of Camp Quixote. A local church saved the protest from termination by the police, and since then the encampment has become Camp Quixote, and has continued to be supported by faith-based organizations (Panza).
Faith-based organizations did not simply help to keep the 2007 protest alive and begin Camp Quixote. The ordinance passed by the City of Olympia that has allowed Camp Quixote to exist since the protest in 2007 was not specifically about where homeless communities were allowed to reside, but about recognizing “the right of faith communities to practice their religious beliefs” through providing those who are homeless with shelter. According to Panza’s history of the camp, the “state of Washington has also passed legislation requiring faith communities’ right to practice their religions by serving the poor.” The right to practice religious beliefs, not the right to a secure living situation as a person who is homeless is what has kept Camp Quixote functioning and legal since 2007.
Since the ordinance was passed, Camp Quixote has been hosted by seven local faith-based organizations including St. John’s Episcopal Church, First Christian Church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and Westminster Presbyterian Church—the camp’s current location. Faith communities have merged with the homeless community not only by hosting the camp, but also by providing monetary aid, donating food and other supplies, and volunteering to help the camp with moves, advocacy, and more. I often accepted donations from Living Water Christian Church during my hosting shifts, and Temple Beth Hatfiloh gave a substantial monetary donation to the camp from its Blintzapalooza event.
Camp Quixote has a strong, positive connection to the faith community in Thurston County—the faith-based organizations that aid Camp Quixote are there to help, not to convert. While some of the residents are religious, many are not and those that are do not necessarily attend services at the church currently hosting them. Residents often give back to the congregation in other ways—cleaning and gardening (among other chores), as well as hosting an annual volunteer picnic in the summer. The symbiotic relationship between Camp Quixote and local faith-based organizations has existed for over five years and is an excellent example of the pervasive connection between religion and community service in our country.
What is a faith-based organization?
A faith-based organization can be defined not only as a congregation, but also as “national networks, include national denominations, their social service arms…and networks of related organizations (such as YMCA and YWCA)” and “freestanding religious organizations, which are incorporated separately from congregations and national networks.” In the case of Camp Quixote, the faith-based organizations are local and congregation-based; however, there are many faith-based organizations that operate on a national and non-congregational level to provide aid to those in need.
Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the Gospel Rescue Mission all either are currently, or were previously, associated with some form of faith, though they now vary in their commitment to religion. Alcoholics Anonymous began as a Christian fellowship, but is not typically regarded as being faith-based and its website mentions religion only on its history page, whereas the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, and the Gospel Rescue Mission continue to be faith-based.
All of these organizations provide an exorbitant amount of aid to those in need. The Gospel Rescue Mission provided over 50,000 beds and served over 200,000 meals to those in need between April 2010 and March 2011. The Olympia Salvation Army provides support services such as emergency shelter and food and nutritional programs (Salvation Army) and in the 2011 fiscal year, Habitat for Humanity aided 81,399 families through home construction and repair.
Not only are there many faith-based organizations providing aid to the homeless and others in need, but US citizens also give a substantial amount of money to religious organizations. In 2006, the largest amount of the total money donated by US citizens that year—$96.2 billion—was given to local churches, the Salvation Army, and other faith-based organizations.
United States citizens value faith-based organizations and faith-based organizations value community service. According to a 2001 report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “fourteen percent of community development corporations (CDCs) are faith-based.” Faith-based organizations play a huge role in aiding homeless and impoverished communities—where does the desire to aid the needy stem from and how is it that support from religious communities remains so consistent and extensive?
Why? Jesus says
According to dictionary.com, religion is “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.” These beliefs and practices are central to how a religion is practiced and include a belief in helping each other. The “golden rule” is prevalent in almost every religion as exemplified by Jesus’ statement that, “…whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them…” (Matthew 7.12). Those who belong to a faith-based organization are told they must help each other; it is no wonder religious communities feel so devoutly about aiding those in need.
Religion, especially in the United States, tends not to be solitary. Religion exists as a group activity and through its group structure, religion becomes much more than a belief system—it becomes a community. When people feel supported and connected to those they work with, they are more likely to remain committed. Other organizations may fail to retain members because they lack “an overarching ideology powerful enough to overcome the fissility of often transitory common interests.” Religion is the perfect way to gain what Michael Pacione of the University of Strathclyde would call “ideological solidarity.” Members of religious congregations share the same values and morals, keeping them bound and invested in their faith-based organization of choice.
According to Ben Gray Bass, faith-based organizations “are a community solution to this pervasive and continuing problem [homelessness].” Religious beliefs and doctrines may be the initial reason for the desire to aid those in need, but the community created by the religion allows the service to continue. People don’t go to church just to praise their god; they go to church because, through their strong common beliefs, they have become honestly invested in each other’s lives. Religion creates community and community provides structure, organization, and commitment.
Advantages and disadvantages of faith-based organizations as providers of aid
Faith-based organizations are in many ways highly equipped to provide aid to communities in need such as homeless communities due to their financial resources and access to volunteers. They are better able to keep “residents engaged in the organization’s work” than secular groups because the community of a congregational faith-based organization invests people in their place of worship, and it is that investment that leads to a desire to be involved in church activities such as service projects.
Potential encumbrances to faith-based organizations providing aid include congregation members lacking the skills and the ability to commit substantial amounts of time to service projects, and the “potential for projects to be viewed as church rather than neighborhood initiatives.” However, these disadvantages are easily overcome, and when compared to the aid faith-based organizations have provided—and are capable of continuing to provide—hardly give cause for the efforts of faith-based organizations to aid homeless communities to cease. However, theses disadvantages are only the disadvantages that faith-based organizations themselves will encounter, but more necessary to address is the potentially negative result of allowing faith-based organizations to continue providing aid to those who are homeless and impoverished.
Undeserved responsibility given to faith-based organizations
Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness
And fearest to die? Famine is in thy cheeks,
Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,
Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back:
The world is not thy friend, nor the world’s law;
The world affords no law to make thee rich;
Then be not poor, but break it and take this.
-Romeo and Juliet (Act V, Scene i)
Romeo convinces an apothecary to illegally sell him poison by arguing that no other aid but his money will be offered to keep the apothecary alive. Hungry and desperate for aid, the apothecary knows Romeo is correct and that he, much like the homeless of our country, survives despite the lack of help from the law. When government social services are not available, faith-based organizations make up for their absence—and despite this being positive in the short run, it sends a potentially harmful message.
Allowing faith-based organizations to take the lead in providing support means letting others decrease their efforts to aid those in need. The concern is not that secular organizations would stop their efforts to aid those in need, but that the aid provided by faith-based organizations is unintentionally relieving some pressure from the group most responsible for working to solve poverty and homelessness: the government. The Bush Administration’s creation of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships placed responsibility on existing community organizations (both secular and non-secular) to provide aid to their communities. While this office of the White House is positive in that its goals are to partner with and aid these community organizations (faith-based), the partnerships move responsibility from just the government to the government and community organizations. Faith-based organizations have and are capable of aiding those in need immensely, but it should not solely be their responsibility to do so.
Camp Quixote’s relationship to Olympia’s religious community provides them with the support they need to survive as a community. Many other religious communities and faith-based organizations aid homeless communities in similar ways to the faith-based organizations hosting and aiding Camp Quixote. Faith-based organizations, due to their moral objectives and strength as a community of individuals invested in nearly identical belief systems, are capable of providing massive amounts of aid to communities in need of assistance.
The role faith-based organizations play in aiding homeless communities is important not only because of the invaluable support they contribute, but also because of the example they set for others looking to organize and participate in community service projects. Faith-based organizations have inadvertently developed a prototype for successful service organizations. There may not exist a bond as strong as religion to keep people invested in community service, but the accomplishments of faith-based organizations indicates a need for personal investment in service to achieve real change.
Allison Zoe Schneider is an undergraduate student at the Evergreen State College, where she is currently studying Shakespearean dramaturgy and performance. She works as a member of Evergreen’s Services and Activities Fee Allocation Board and is the coordinator of the Evergreen Shakespeare Society.
This article is a condensed version of her symposium report for the Student-Originated Studies program, Revitalizing Community, which she completed this past spring quarter under the faculty supervision of Dr. Zoltán Grossman.