Center’s Thematic Working Groups on Homelessness Meet for the First Time

First Thematic Working Group meeting, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs - group shot with Michael Yoder, Hannah Hunthausen, David Rodes
October 29, 2018

Following a call for participants released over the summer, the Center announced the partnership of 26 practitioners in its 2018-2019 thematic working group process. These practitioners represent a cohort of 24 faith-based and community organizations from across Puget Sound, comprised of both non-profit service agencies like Catholic Community Services, Compass Housing Alliance and the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, and congregations, like Temple de Hirsch Sinai, Idris Mosque and Puyallup Church of the Nazarene.

This cohort is divided into three working groups organized around responses to homelessness where faith-based organizations (FBOs) have played a particularly important role: encampments, tiny houses, and emergency shelter and permanent housing. Each group met for the first time in October at Seattle University to discuss the framework that will orient their collective problem-solving over the next several months, and to present their respective organizational contexts, and the specific challenges or “puzzles” each of them would like to address.

Nick Leider and Manuel Mejido at October 2018 Encampments working group meeting, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, Seattle UniversityCenter Director Dr. Manuel Mejido opened each meeting by introducing the three ideas that underpin the thematic working group process.  First, FBOs in the U.S. have been essential to a thriving civil society, and by extension, to the maintenance of democratic institutions (Alexis de Tocqueville and José Casanova).  Second, democracy is best understood as community problem-solving – as an experimentalist process that goes beyond the important dynamics of contestation and deliberation, and focuses on how FBOs and other local stakeholders devise and implement the means of acting together more effectively (John Dewey and Xavier Briggs).  And third, there are important opportunities for enhancing the civic engagement of FBOs in the context of the so-called “new localism,” where problem-solving has shifted vertically from national to municipal governments, and horizontally from the public sector to networks of civic, private and public actors (Laura Tyson, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak). 

Oriented by this framework, the thematic working groups will engage in a collective problem-solving process designed to facilitate the development and implementation of innovative responses to homelessness.  As the groups engage and develop plans with respect to each participant’s puzzle, they will also uncover questions for further research by the Center, as well as contribute to a knowledge base that will be disseminated to other FBOs and community partners.

John Hull and Maggie Breen at October 2018 Encampments working group meeting, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, Seattle UniversityThe working group on encampments includes representatives from a variety of organizations based in Pierce, King and Snohomish Counties. The participants of this group are asking questions about how FBOs can best intervene as the affordable housing crisis intensifies and both sanctioned and unsanctioned encampments become more prevalent across Puget Sound.  As an example, in this group Ms. Cinda Stenger, board member and co-leader of the Social Justice/Outreach team at Alki United Church of Christ, wants to work out how her congregation can help evolve the current temporary encampment model into something sustainable and permanent, encouraging public acceptance of encampments as a viable source of very low-income housing and positive community. Mr. John Hull, Director of Strategic Communications at Everett Gospel Mission, wants to understand how his relief and rescue organization can balance its mandate to serve its shelter residents and also respond to persons within unsanctioned encampments, while taking into account the needs and concerns of other community stakeholders.

The working group on shelter and permanent housing includes representatives from regional organizations like the Housing Development Consortium and Compass Housing Alliance, as well as representatives from more locally focused faith-based organizations.  At this stage, Rev. Melanie Neufeld, Pastor at Seattle Mennonite Church, is asking how her congregation might execute a plan for year-round shelter on church property that complies with the mandates of King County and the City of Seattle around exits to permanent housing. Ms. Cheryl Sesnon, Executive Director of Jubilee Women’s Center, wants to know how to implement services that expand her clients’ access to careers with livable wages so they can sustain themselves. Ms. Sesnon is excited to participate in related conversation with colleagues around how to develop the critical affordable housing her clients need.

Maggie Breen and Rizwan Rizwi at October 2018 Shelter and Permanent Housing Working group meeting, Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs, Seattle UniversityThe working group on tiny houses includes those intimately involved in the building and siting of tiny houses at the congregational level as well as representatives of larger organizations asking broader strategic questions. Ms. Carolyna Bilal, Trustee of Idris Mosque, wants to know how her mosque can develop educational programs for her congregation and the immediate community around causes and effective responses to homelessness informed by the experiences of immigrants and refugees. Rev. Deacon Brian Wright, Missioner for Veterans Ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, given the lack of urban land suitable for development, is investigating whether siting tiny houses is an appropriate use of church property in his diocese.

These three thematic working groups will meet next in November, at which time we will hear full presentations on organizational puzzles from two members of each group, followed by a problem-solving session with the group at-large that will focus on implementing an innovative solution. This format will be repeated until all members have had the chance to present, discuss and rework their puzzles and accompanying plans. The working group process will culminate in a professional development workshop, Problem-Solving to Enhance Faith-Based Responses to Homelessness, on June 19-21, 2019. 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, or 206-296-2657.