Wednesday, May 29, 2013

New Life Evangelistic Center and Downtown ... Breaking the Cycle

Last month, a group of residents near New Life Evangelistic Center submitted a petition to the Board of Public Service alleging that NLEC is operating in a way that is a "detriment to the neighborhood," citing a series of behaviors exhibited by people frequenting the facility and asking for a hearing about these complaints. Click here for a fact sheet about the petition. NLEC has responded with a fundraising letter saying it is "threatened by the upper class who want to blame those in need for problems created by bars on Washington Avenue" and Winter Outreach has responded with a counter-petition. I believe a destructive cycle is being repeated here, and I want to take a moment to explain my thoughts and the position I am taking. 

As always, I welcome thoughtful and prayerful dialogue.

I am committed to working for a city that makes glad God’s heart. I believe God’s heart is glad when:

*We respect the dignity of every human being and all creation

*We work together for the common good – not just surviving but thriving.

*We seek and serve Christ in one another, always assuming the best in one another, never demonizing one another and calling each other to be the best we can be.

History has shown us prone to not doing these things – particularly the last two. History has also shown that we tend to be reactive and are prone to looking at things situationally and not systemically. I believe both of those are playing out today.

I believe all the players in this cycle are people of good will. The cycle is the problem. And the cycle is familiar:

*Downtown attracts large numbers of homeless women, men and children.

*Because of the high volume we are relegated to concentrating on emergency aid ... emergency shelters and feeding programs … necessary but not helping people in the long term. As we add more of these services, more homeless people are attracted, which puts more strain on the system and reduces our ability to transition people out of homelessness.

*Cutbacks in health care and housing, proliferation of inexpensive drugs and alcohol, lack of jobs, race and class prejudice and sheer numbers contribute to destructive behaviors among the homeless population.

*Non-homeless residents and business owners raise the issues of the behaviors.

This is the tipping point. This is where we are right now with the petition that has been filed by the residents about NLEC.

In the past, here is what has happened:

*NLEC and others portray city government and those who raised the issues as the self-concerned rich and even deny the behaviors are a result of the volume of homeless people in the neighborhood.

*The media, who know that conflict sells, divert attention not only from the behaviors but also from the issue of the inadequacy of the current measures to move people out of homelessness.

*The prevailing narrative becomes the evil city and residents vs. the good NLEC and homeless advocates. Large amounts of resources are spent. Eventually, those who raised the issues of the behaviors get tired of fighting and stop – often leaving downtown.

Nothing changes. Inflows of homeless people continue, destructive behaviors escalate and a new group of people raise the issue at which time we’re off to the races again.

I have been downtown at Christ Church Cathedral for a little more than four years – that’s a small amount of time compared with many – but I have spent that time listening, watching and learning. Here is what I am discovering:

*Downtown West shoulders an unsustainable proportion of the homeless population. We cannot shift our efforts to long-term solutions unless the opportunity to help is shared more evenly throughout the region.

*Pretty much all of us are compassionate. I haven't met a lot of (or, really, any) Snidely Whiplashes. The people who have moved downtown – the same people who signed the petition – do not hate homeless people. Many moved downtown for the diversity of downtown. By and large, they want to end homelessness, not push homeless people off.

*The residents do want to not see drugs dealt outside their window, to not have urine and feces on their buildings. to be able to walk down the street in safety  – I share those desires and hope we all do.

*The behaviors are the canary in the coal mine. They are the sign that something is very wrong. And not just that we need more services of the same kind which will only attract more people and maintain the status quo. If we are to make any real progress, we cannot continue to spend our energy fighting over whether the canary is dead while we all slowly suffocate.

I have been watching and listening to the latest round of this cycle unfold, and I propose an attempt to break the cycle and work together to choose a different path. Specifically,

1) Instead of demonizing the residents, assume the best of them, acknowledge they have valid points, and claim common cause to eliminate the behaviors.

2) Instead of demonizing NLEC, encourage all to assume the best of them, believing that they would like nothing more than to end homelessness.

3) Like the Winter Outreach petition urges, I support bringing everyone – NLEC, city officials, residents, business owners, homeless service providers, homeless persons, advocates and anyone else who wants to – together in a conversation about the real issues. However I strongly disagree that the "real issue" is more services of the type we already have concentrated in this already overloaded area. The first issue we need to address is reducing volume and inflow, which will allow us to refocus our efforts from emergency aid to transitioning people out of homelessness.

4) If any of our facilities is operating in ways that are unsafe, insist that they abide by existing building and safety laws, and help them to do so … both by working with them to make any necessary changes in a reasonable timeframe and by working to spread out the availability of services to reduce the volume of people in the facility. If there is doubt about any facility being a danger to public health and safety, that facility (including Christ Church Cathedral) should willingly invite inspection.

5) Commit together to give primary support to programs and ministries that transition people sustainably out of homelessness and poverty (e.g. HomeFirst STL, St. Patrick CenterBridge Bread, and Magdalene St. Louis.)

Above all, let us commit to breaking the cycle of demonization and destructive conflict. We can make this a city that makes glad God’s heart. But we can only do it if we break this cycle, work together and call each other to be the best we can be.