Earlier this month, the Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ (CRWWA) thematic working groups met for the fourth time to continue their collective problem-solving efforts. These working groups, made up of practitioners from over 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 the January meetings, members of the encampments group and the tiny houses group presented their organizational puzzles around responding to homelessness. This was followed by problem-solving sessions within each group that focused on the implementation of innovative solutions.
Ms. Cinda Stenger and Mr. Nick Leider kicked things off, presenting their puzzles and emerging plans to the encampments working group. Ms. Stenger is Co-leader of the Social Justice / Outreach Team at Alki United Church of Christ (Alki UCC), a West Seattle congregation which, she notes, benefits from strong lay leadership and has a long-standing commitment to social justice activism and community development, particularly around homelessness. The congregation has been engaged in supporting homeless encampments in one form or another for several years. Since 2016, a core network of members and volunteers has raised significant funds and participated in the construction of tiny houses for residents of Camp Second Chance, a city-sanctioned encampment in south Seattle. Due to the transformative relational and material impact, Ms. Stenger attests this outreach project has had on campers and volunteers, she is grappling with the puzzle of how best to scale up and out. As part of this process, in an effort to expand their network and share their model they have recently formalized as “Sound Foundations NW” and have begun to develop a webpage. Fellow working group members, many of whom are based in Pierce County, raised challenges to scalability and transferability posed by different municipal and organizational contexts, such as restrictive ordinances, and/or a lack of political will or congregational buy-in. A discussion followed that pushed for clarity around the scope and deliverables of Sound Foundations NW and that weighed, among other things, the respective merits of exporting a particular model versus building a resource-sharing network with the flexibility to respond to local needs and conditions.
Mr. Leider then presented the group with his puzzle. As a Regional Network Builder for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington (CCSWW) his current mandate is to support, coach and resource congregations across southwest Washington to create new and expanded ministries addressing the needs of poor families and communities. He is wrestling with how to secure a host congregation for a temporary shelter in Tacoma while navigating the city’s ordinances governing the siting of shelters. These ordinances are felt to be prohibitively restrictive for smaller, under-resourced faith-based organizations and congregations interested in taking part in this aspect of the homelessness response system. He sought advice and suggestions from the group around potential collaborators and engagement strategies. After first talking through the ins and outs of the city’s temporary shelter permitting process, the group shared their rich collective professional experience around strategies for engaging congregations and getting buy-in as a relative outsider – for example, how to lower real and perceived barriers around risk and insurance, human and material resources. They suggested that, as he works with congregations who might baulk at the implications of hosting a shelter under such conditions, Mr. Leider communicate the technical expertise and institutional backing he brings as a representative of CCSWW.
The tiny houses working group heard first from Rev. Brian Wright, Deacon for the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and chair of its recently launched Bishop’s Task Force on Homelessness. In his current role, Rev. Wright is stewarding a large-scale process to evaluate diocesan property and its current and potential use as related to housing and other responses to homelessness. Propelled by the assumptions that church property is underutilized and that there is a lack of technical knowledge of property management and real estate development among leadership, the taskforce is first collaborating with Catholic Housing Services to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of diocesan property. They are simultaneously preparing to survey individual parishes to gauge their openness and capacity to engage in creating affordable housing. The taskforce will wrap up this process and make recommendations later this year. Working group members reflected back to Rev. Wright the promise of taking a diocesan level approach to this issue and the value this might lend to other regional church bodies as they thing about the use of church land. The group also commented on the sequencing of Rev. Wright’s implementation plan encouraging him to leverage opportunities for feedback from the wider diocese as he develops his findings into education materials.
Ms. Christina Kim, Deputy Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Puget Sound Health Care System’s Homeless Patient Aligned Care Teams, next detailed her puzzle, which centers on exploring how to collaborate with FBOs to better provide medical respite care to homeless individuals. She presented data showing the significant cost-savings for providers and the improved outcomes for homeless individuals with acute or chronic health conditions that can result from instituting medical respite care in communities. She sees great potential in partnering with congregations and arm’s-length faith-based non-profits which, being deeply grounded in and trusted by their community, are important sources of social capital. The group offered ideas around partnership, including some leads, and Ms. Kim also encouraged the individuals in the room representing service organizations to reach out to her if they identify any veterans among their clientele who are not already enrolled in the VA system.
The emergency shelter and permanent housing group did not meet this month due to scheduling conflicts and have decided to meet next in February.
All three groups will meet again in a few weeks to consider and problem-solve around another set of organizational puzzles, with an eye toward implementing innovative solutions. In addition, there will be structured time for past and future presenters to reconnect and help each other refine their developing implementation plans. 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 June 2019 with a professional development workshop, taught by Center 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or 206-296-2657.