Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs Working Groups: Problem-Solving Continues

March 29, 2019

The Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ (CRWWA) thematic working groups met to continue their collective problem-solving efforts in February and March. These working groups, made up of practitioners from 20 faith-based and community organizations from across Puget Sound, are organized around responses to homelessness where faith-based organizations (FBOs) have played a particularly important role. At these most recent meetings, select members within each group presented their organizational puzzles around responding to homelessness, followed by problem-solving sessions that focused on the implementation of innovative solutions.

Mr. Joey Ager and Mr. Marty Kooistra presented their puzzles and emerging plans at the February meeting of the shelter and permanent housing working group. As Lead Organizer for the Church Council of Greater Seattle (the Church Council), Mr. Ager focuses on bringing the tools of faith-based community organizing to South King County congregations around a variety issues, including homelessness and affordable housing. The Church Council, an ecumenical and interfaith convener and organizing body, is working on a campaign to move county municipal policy forward to make it easier to develop congregation-owned land. Mr. Ager posits that top-down technocratic approaches and bottom-up community-based responses to homelessness develop in opposition to, or at least separately from, one another in our region, and he is grappling with how the Church Council might leverage its political clout, organizing expertise and network to support a more integrated approach for congregations seeking to develop their land. Mr. Ager then sought advice and suggestions from the group around best practices and local models for doing this kind of work. The group affirmed that congregations involved in land development ought to be deeply connected to community needs as well as engaged in supporting the community that will live on the land. They agreed that models of affordable housing that work in such a way need to be developed, documented and shared.

Marty Kooistra Shelter and Permanent Housing Working Group, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, March 2019Mr. Kooistra, Executive Director of the Housing Development Consortium (HDC), then presented his organizational puzzle. HDC is a nonprofit membership association that serves as an advocate, broker and convener of and for organizations involved in developing and operating affordable housing in Seattle-King County. Mr. Kooistra describes HDC as a “big tent” membership organization that faces strategic communications challenges given its diverse group of stakeholders and the considerably complex set of issues it engages: How does an organization convey three hours-worth of complexity into a cogent and compelling three-minute pitch? The group helped Mr. Kooistra think through what HDC’s role is in supporting faith-based organizations – specifically, how they can help FBOs as they try to work with private and public entities.

Due to weather-related office closures, the other two groups did not meet in February. All three groups reconvened in March.

At the first of the March meetings, Ms. Carolyna Bilal, a member of Idris Mosque’s Board of Trustees, presented her puzzle and plan to the tiny houses group. Idris Mosque is a vibrant, culturally and linguistically diverse community that up to now has served the wider community through such activities as food and clothing drives, translation services, and by providing volunteers for shelters and meal sites in and near Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood. Drawing on Ms. Bilal’s experience as an educator and her conviction that education is key to socioeconomic success, Idris leadership is now exploring a more upstream response to poverty and homelessness – a youth homelessness prevention program on their property. The program she envisions would include elements such as skill-building and job readiness workshops, opportunities to make and sell art, and job placement for unstably housed youth. Ms. Bilal notes that the mosque is somewhat constrained by a lack of fixed membership: unpredictable fluctuations in attendance and giving present sustainability challenges for an in-house program. In the problem-solving session that followed, group members highlighted the congregation’s cultural and linguistic diversity as an valuable resource that could be leveraged to better serve underserved immigrant and refugee communities. They also affirmed that Idris mosque’s location and community assets make it an attractive partner, pilot or host site for other organizations and service providers, such as the City of Seattle, Work Source, YouthCare, and Cocoon House. Ms. Bilal and Idris are in the process of developing an oversight board and an operating board, and, in conversation with community partners, hope to finesse their plan and launch a pilot as early as this summer.

Tiny Houses Thematic Working Group, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, March 2019

Ms. Jenna Dubas and Mr. John Hull next presented their puzzles and developing plans at the encampments group meeting. Ms. Dubas, an Outreach Specialist at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM), is interested in expanding and ensuring the sustainability of one of UGM’s outreach programs called “The Bridge.” The program started as a passion project that benefited from strong volunteer support and a dedicated staff member (Ms. Dubas) going above and beyond her job duties to keep the program running. The Bridge is now facing capacity issues and is looking to improve and expand its services through strategic partnerships and by developing systems for monitoring and evaluation (e.g. tracking engagement with and outcomes for participants). Ms. Dubas is collaborating with the City of Seattle’s Navigation Team and hopes to secure formal partnerships with mental health providers, nurses and a mobile shower service to make The Bridge a more effective service hub for unsheltered people. Noting that bureaucratic structures and reporting requirements can sometimes slow and restrict responses by municipal and county government and government-funded agencies, Mr. Hull encouraged Ms. Dubas and UGM to leverage their nimbleness as a privately funded organization and continue in a leadership role in this multi-stakeholder effort.

Jenna Dubas, Encampments Thematic Working Group, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, March 2019

Mr. Hull, who is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Everett Gospel Mission (EGM), then presented his puzzle and emerging plan. EGM operates a day center, men’s shelter and women and children’s shelter, a faith-based recovery program, beds for medical respite care, meals, and case management. Citing the increasing cost of housing in Snohomish County and the corresponding increase in homelessness, as well as the fact that EGM is the only provider of shelter for men in the county, Mr. Hull sees a critical need for shelter expansion and collaboration with municipal and county government and other providers. He sees EGM playing a leadership and convening role in moving this forward, and envisions creating a centralized service center, modeled after others like The Bridge in Dallas, TX, which provides navigation services, transportation, employment programs, meals, medical care and case management all in one secure location. Mr. Hull and the team at EGM have conducted a series of site visits, as well as many interviews with homeless individuals to understand the barriers to using shelter they experience, so that EGM can innovate and improve their services (by, for example, replacing old shelter beds with a new design that includes built-in secure lockers and outlets to charge phones and electronics). In the midst of this work, Mr. Hull is wrestling with the question of “who is my neighbor?” and what loving one’s neighbor looks like –  that is, how to respect and balance the needs, interests, safety and dignity of all of EGM’s neighbors, including people experiencing homelessness, those in the grips of addiction (both housed and homeless), business owners, and families with children.

Britt Olson, Shelter and Permanent Housing Thematic Working Group, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, March 2019At the final meeting of the month, the shelter and permanent housing group heard from Rev. Britt Olson and Mr. Rob Stewart. Rev. Olson is the Vicar of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where she is leading the community through an extensive discernment process around redeveloping the church’s property, which consists of several buildings in critical need of repair and a campus that is nearly the size of a city block. While St. Luke’s worshipping community is small, its campus is buzzing with activity as it hosts a wide array of programs and community resources in the heart of the Ballard neighborhood, including housing for 10 interns and a family, an urban garden maintained by 50 community gardeners, seven beehives, the offices of the Bridge Care Center, a weekly community meal, a rain garden, and more. Unfortunately, the age and state of the buildings are such that a large-scale, costly and disruptive renovation and redevelopment is imminently necessary. The conundrum is that the church has very little money, is not able or willing to sell its property, and wishes to maintain its various ministries and status as a community resource hub. Rev. Olson poses their puzzle thus: In this context, how do we continue to hold space that builds the beloved community? The church is in the midst of an appreciative inquiry process, seeking feedback both from parishioners and the wider community, and is grappling with what development options are financially viable but also in alignment with their mission. Group members offered several possibilities, including specific developer contacts, exploring a “participant lease” arrangement, selling off a portion of the land, and considering workforce housing development.

Finally, Mr. Stewart, who is Executive Director of New Horizons Ministries, presented his organization’s puzzle around discerning its role in serving homeless youth. New Horizons is a small nonprofit with evangelical roots that has traditionally served homeless youth through a drop-in center, shelter and housing navigation services. In the last year, the organization has experienced significant growth, increasing staff and expanding services to include an employment program and social business model called “Street Bean” that trains and employs homeless youth to work in a coffee shop. The organization is now at a crossroads, facing challenges of capacity and scalability. Mr. Stewart is grappling questions around New Horizons’ basic mission and identity, as well as its fundraising capacity and decisions around funding sources (government versus private donors and foundations). Are they primarily a shelter provider that runs an employment program, or an employment program that runs a shelter? Members of the group challenged Mr. Stewart to ask deep questions of himself, his staff and board about what they want to become – what is their “true north” – and offered some wisdom around the pros and cons of public versus private funding from their own experience (e.g. public funding provides stability and increased capacity, but also comes with a large administrative workload).

Manuel Mejido, Shelter and Permanent Housing Thematic Working Group, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, March 2019

All three groups will meet again in April to consider and problem-solve around the remaining organizational puzzles and will have the opportunity to revisit those that have already been presented to continue helping one another refine their implementation plans 

The working group process will culminate in June 2019 with a professional development workshop, taught by CRWWA Director Manuel J. Mejido, entitled Problem-Solving to Enhance Faith-Based Responses to Homelessness. Thematic working group members will present their final plans during this workshop, which offers other practitioners from the Puget Sound region and other parts of the country the opportunity to model the working group process.


For more information about these thematic working groups please be in touch with Rev. Margaret Breen, Community Engagement Manager, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, at breenm@seattleu.edu, or 206-296-2657.