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

Melanie Neufeld
December 20, 2018

Earlier this month, the Center’s thematic working groups met for the third 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: encampments, emergency shelter and permanent housing, and tiny houses. At the December meetings, members 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.

The encampments group heard a presentation from Dr. Ruby Takushi, Director of Programs for Recovery Café. Recovery Café is a self-described “community of individuals who have been traumatized by homelessness, addiction, and other mental health challenges.” The Café invites Members into healing community, providing recovery support that is distinct from treatment services: holding Members lovingly accountable to at least 24 hours of sobriety and securing their commitment to attend a weekly recovery circle and make a contribution to the Café community. In her role as Director of Programs, Dr. Takushi is tasked with developing the program systems and structures that support the recovery process, helping Members achieve and maintain psychophysical, social and spiritual stability while honoring their self-determination and cultivating their leadership. Her puzzle centers on how to articulate and foster healthy boundaries for and among staff, volunteers and Members in this context. In conversation with the group, Dr. Takushi was able to begin to define what successfully solving this puzzle might look like—that is, a new operations manual that accurately describes the structures around each role (staff, volunteer, Member), as well as specific criteria and a decision-making process for breaking or “bending” rules. The group noted the natural tension between rules and relationship and also cautioned against overstating the level of mutuality that is present and possible—even when it is a core value of staff and volunteers—in a formally hierarchical organizational context.

Ruby Takushi

Following the presentation and problem-solving session, the group debriefed together on initiatives already presented and underway or being developed. Two themes emerged during this part of the conversation: First, how to develop congregational capacity in responding to homelessness and how partnering faith-based service organizations might be a support in this respect; and second, how FBOs respond to municipal and county ordinances regarding the use of faith-based land, including the rights of congregations to host encampments and tiny houses. A number of participants in this group are from Pierce County and are interested in how the experiences of group members from outside their region might inform their engagement of their particular policy landscape.

The working group on shelter and permanent housing heard a presentation from Rev. Melanie Neufeld, Community Pastor at Seattle Mennonite Church and Director of Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness. Seattle Mennonite Church is an active congregation that coordinates the Lake City neighborhood’s response to people experiencing homelessness. In addition to running a local day center and having low-income housing on its property, the church collaborates with other faith communities to operate a rotating winter shelter via Lake City Partners Ending Homelessness (LCPEH), the nonprofit for which it is the fiscal sponsor. Rev. Neufeld is trying to work out how to build the shared capacity of Seattle Mennonite and LCPEH in a way that most effectively increases the number of people served who successfully exit to housing. As she grapples with this puzzle, she is weighing the benefits of the following: finding more congregations to host the winter shelter versus securing a permanent location for it; becoming more self-sufficient versus relying on other congregations; and determining the right balance of funding sources (namely, government grants versus private donors) to build a reserve to ensure cash flow and program sustainability. The group affirmed Rev. Neufeld’s tentative plan to build capacity to deliver effective navigation and suggested some funding avenues for her longer-term development plans.

Josh Perme

In the second half of the meeting, the working group on shelter and permanent housing debriefed on developing initiatives. The difficulties experienced in navigating the Coordinated Entry system emerged as a theme. The group considered how FBOs might be involved in the development of affordable housing as a way to relieve pressure on the housing system.

The working group on tiny houses, which will hear their next new presentation in January, used their time at the December meeting to share updates, consult and problem-solve together on puzzles and plans already presented, and those still in development. Mr. Josh Perme of the Bridge Care Center offered an update on their “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” campaign. This campaign will be launched next year and will provide support to local congregations as they engage issues of homelessness in Ballard. Rev. Brian Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia noted this initiative demonstrates BCC’s developing role as a community resource hub and convener. The group helped Ms. Mary Wahl of Catholic Community Services reflect on how CCS, Catholic parishes and county government could deepen their relationships with one another to facilitate the placement of para-navigators in local parishes. Rev. Wright updated the group on the November 2018 launch of the Bishop’s Task Force on Homelessness. He will be working with the thematic working group to explore how this taskforce can support individual Episcopal congregations in their responses to homelessness as well as how the Diocese of Olympia can leverage their wider institutional presence to develop a regional strategy. Ms. Christina Kim from the VA Puget Sound Health Care System detailed for the group some of the initiatives in which she is involved with respect to the VA’s regional response to homelessness. They agreed that her current work on developing respite care for homeless individuals and the opportunity she identified to partner with FBOs in this regard would be a fruitful initiative to pursue with this thematic working group.

These working groups will meet next in January, at which time they will 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 breenm@seattleu.edu, or 206-296-2657.