Center Rolls Out Thematic Working Groups to Problem-Solve Around Faith-Based Responses to Homelessness

June 27, 2018

The Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ Puget Sound Network gathered on June 13th along with the Center team, Graduate Student Affiliates, and five key community partners as part of its continued work around how faith-based organizations (FBOs) can more effectively respond to pressing social problems, like homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.

The June 13th meeting marked the end of the pilot year of the Puget Sound Interfaith Network for Public Theology. This gathering was therefore focused on taking stock and consulting on the next iteration of the Center’s engagement with local FBOs working on homelessness and related social issues. 

Marilyn Cornwell June 2018 Puget Sound Network MeetingLaunched at the Center’s initial symposium in April 2017, the Puget Sound Network is a group of faith-based practitioners and community partners who work with the Center to assess the capacity needs of FBOs involved in community development efforts in the region; support the Center’s professional development series and other community education models; identify research questions to ensure that the work of Center scholars is aligned with the needs of the local context; and consider how their community engagement – their “praxis” – might contribute to theological reflection, especially in light of the tensions between charity and social justice, and progressive reform and radical change. 

Prior to the June 13th meeting, the group convened five times. During these gatherings, participants engaged in moderated discussions around specific capacity-building themes, as well as dialogued with Center scholars about their ongoing research projects. 

Themes explored during this past year included: the capacity needs of FBOs working on homelessness; the analytical tools and typologies used by specialists to talk about community development; the contributions FBOs have made to the homeless encampment movement in the Puget Sound; the potential role of FBOs in documenting the “thick descriptions” of individuals experiencing homelessness; and the use of community economic development and social business strategies to push beyond mere “assistance,” towards the creation of wealth, enhancement of assets, and expansion of the socioeconomic opportunities in poor or vulnerable neighborhoods. 

Amber-Larkin-June-2018-Network-meeting_552x403pxAs the Puget Sound Network and community partners grappled with these themes, a number of recurring questions emerged that are in need of further exploration: What are the unique contributions FBOs (as opposed to non-sectarian organizations) make to civil society and community development? What does it mean for an FBO to be innovative in its responses to pressing social problems? Given their limited resources and capacities, how do FBOs balance providing for immediate needs and addressing the root causes of social problems? How do FBOs ensure that the work they do and services they provide do not undermine the agency of their clients and congregants? How can FBOs more effectively collaborate with other stakeholders, such as City Hall, the private sector, and the like? How do FBOs go about learning from each other, and develop the resources and constituent support they need?

As the year went by, it became increasingly clear that these questions could be more effectively explored if the Puget Sound Network was organized around smaller, thematic working groups. This modality would allow a select number of Network members and community partners to more directly tackle these questions. It would also allow for a flexibility that is more consistent with the experimentalist vision that orients the Center’s capacity building work. 

The thematic working groups the Center will be rolling out later this summer will be spaces for developing the “collective capacity to problem-solve” around how to more effectively address homelessness and related social problems (see Xavier Briggs, Democracy as Problem Solving). Practitioners will come together, not to deliberate about the world, but rather to reflect on how the FBOs they represent can contribute to changing the state of the world. In other words, they will come together to engage in “democratic experimentalism” – to learn from the comparison of good practices and develop interventions and strategies for their organizations that cannot be determined ex ante, but must instead be discovered in the course of problem-solving (see Charles Sabel, “Dewey, Democracy, and Democratic Experimentalism”). 

Phil Smith June 2018 Puget Sound Network MeetingThere will be three working groups organized around three types of responses to homelessness where FBOs have played a particularly important role: namely, encampments, tiny houses, and emergency shelter and permanent housing. Due in part to the strategic advantages conferred by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993), and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000), faith communities have, from the beginning, been instrumental in the development of homeless encampments. FBOs continue to be deeply involved in this type of intervention as both sanctioned and unsanctioned encampments become more prevalent in cities along the west coast, and as Seattle includes sanctioned tent cities in its official system of response.

Across our region, tiny houses are also becoming increasingly popular as a response to homelessness. FBO engagement in tiny-house villages is extensive and includes building and hosting houses, offering material resources and support, and advocating for the needs and rights of residents. This type of intervention is poised to become as – if not more – controversial than encampments. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) counts people living in tiny houses as “unsheltered,” and this, as The Seattle Times has recently reported, could cost King County federal funding (June 15, 2018).

FBOs provide a significant amount of the emergency shelter services and permanent housing interventions. According to a 2017 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, FBOs provide over 41 percent of the emergency shelter beds for single adults and nearly 16 percent of beds for families. They also provided provide 31 percent of transitional housing beds for single adults and over 19 percent of transitional housing beds for families. Increasingly, faith-based service providers are looking for innovative ways to help shelter residents find the housing they need. Increasingly, too, FBOs are exploring ways of developing long-term housing solutions, either on their own land or within their communities.

Kelly Dahlman-Oeth June 2018 Puget Sound Network MeetingEach of these three thematic working groups – homeless encampments, tiny houses, and emergency shelter and permanent housing – will meet once a month, between October 2018 and June 2019. Groups will consist of four to eight members representing different types of FBOs (e.g., congregations and faith-based service agencies), faith traditions and geographic areas. The three groups will take stock of the resource constraints and key challenges faced by FBOs; compile and examine good practices of faith-based interventions; and problem-solve together to develop sustainable and effective solutions that will be useful for their respective organizations.

This process will provide an opportunity to further engage the aforementioned questions that were raised by the Puget Sound Network during its pilot year; grapple with the puzzles that the working group members bring to the meetings; and develop an evidence base to enhance the existing scholarship on FBOs and community development. The result will be a database of good practices and lessons learned as well as an inventory of innovative programs and strategies. This knowledge base will be made available by the Center to the wider community.

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, or 206-296-2657. 


The community partners present at the March Network meeting were Mr. Josh Perme, The Bridge Care Center; Major Phil Smith, Salvation Army, U.S. Western Territory / NW Division; Rev. Lawrence Willis, True Vine of Holiness Church; and Ms. Dawn Zern, Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission.