Monday, September 16, 2013

Homelessness in St. Louis: Perspectives and Solutions

Homelessness is not simple. It’s incredibly complex and systemic. Every person who ends up on the streets has an individual story for how they got there and needs individual help to get off the streets. Yet -- much of it by necessity of sheer volume -- many of our attempts to end homelessness tend toward mass, "one size fits all" efforts that end up falling way short.

There are lots of consequences … both intended and unintended not only to homelessness but to our efforts to help eliminate it. Again -- it's not simple. It's complex and systemic.

We tend to put people into artificial categories of those who care about the homeless and those who don’t, with those who don’t usually being tagged as uncaring business owners and residents. Problem is, that isn’t my experience of the people who live and work downtown. There are some who are like that … some who just want to push homeless people somewhere else where they will be out of sight, but most people I know who live and work downtown really want to help people who are homeless. But, they also have legitimate concerns about public health and safety, and also about what services will really help move people out of homelessness and what services are just creating a culture of dependency.

As I said. It’s not simple. It’s complex and systemic and there are many different perspectives.

So that's why we're teaming up with winter outreach tomorrow evening (Tuesday, Sept. 17) at 7 pm in the Cathedral Nave for a Downtown Hall Meeting which we’re calling "Homelessness in St. Louis: Perspectives and Solutions," because we want a chance for people from a broad variety of perspectives to share their vantage point on homelessness … what they see the issues are, what their concerns are, and where we might look together for solutions. A diverse group of panelists (see the list below) will each speak for no more than 3 minutes apiece and then most of the evening will be spent in diverse small groups where we will search for solutions that cut across the traditional battle lines.

We have intentionally planned this a week before the public hearing over NLEC because we want to have people go into that hearing with a strong experience that we are partners in this work of ending homelessness, not enemies. And hopefully with some sense of common ground that will have us fighting one another less and working together more.

Our hosting this meeting is a part of what I believe Cathedrals should be ... which is a gathering place where everyone is invited into the room and we ask the questions we think Jesus would ask. That's what's going to happen tomorrow evening.

I hope you will be at Christ Church Cathedral tomorrow night and listen deeply and speak plainly. And be a part of trying something new to end homelessness in our city.

Tomorrow night's panelists will include:
-Kenny Brunnel and other members of downtown’s homeless community
-Residents and those who work in downtown St. Louis
-Amanda Andrus, owner of Gelateria Tavolini
-Megan Heeney, outreach worker and Places for People service provider
-Brad Waldrop, downtown developer
-Sarah “Jonesey” Johnson, staff member of Left Bank Books
-Lewis Reed, President of the Board of Aldermen
-Chris Rice, Pastor of New Life Evangelistic Center

I will co-moderate the event with Jean Allman, professor at Washington University.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Thoughts on leaders, leadership and God's work of gathering in St. Louis

This past weekend, I began Leadership St. Louis, a nine-month journey with a diverse and talented - and wonderfully joyful - group of 65 leaders in the St. Louis region (click here for the class roster). Over the next nine months, we will look in-depth at economic development, education, racism, power & politics, poverty & social sciences, the criminal justice system, arts & culture and the environment. We'll look at trends, problems and solutions -- and most of all imagine how we can work together to lead the region to a better future.

I posted a brief Facebook status about our opening retreat and how excited I was about the quality of leaders in our region, and it elicited a cynical comment from a friend of "When do they start leading?" This sentiment is not unique. We are cynical about leadership. We are frustrated with the problems in our region. We trust less and less and are more and more aware of the role money has in decision making ... and our own ability to be parochial and build and defend fiefdoms.

And yet, I am still full of hope. Over the past 4 1/2 years at Christ Church Cathedral and becoming immersed in the downtown community, I'm learning some things. I say "learning" instead of "have learned" because I still have a long way to go. I know in the next nine months, I will learn a lot more. And I'll keep writing ... and I'd love your comments and thoughts and to continue the conversation over coffee or a beer.

Here are some thoughts:

*The big issues facing the region - race and class divides, the opportunity gap in education and health care, employment and housing, city/county divides and more -- these have been around for decades or more and will not be solved overnight. There will not be one galvanizing leader who will take us to the promised land - certainly not in all of them and probably not even in any one of them. Progress will be -- and has been -- piecemeal.

*Because one of our major problems is parochialism and fiefdoms, some of the most effective leaders will be the ones who can work behind the scenes and out of the camera eye to bring people together. I think churches are poised to do a lot of this work ... to be the sacred common ground where people can gather to look for what the common good is. It is the networkers of the coming generations -- for whom the divisions are increasingly less important -- who will make the most progress on this.

*The big shifts often happen as a culmination of a lot of small efforts. 15 years ago, Magdalene in Nashville started as a house for 5 women (and Magdalene St. Louis will start the same way), but today it is helping lead a national conversation on human trafficking and helping cities across the country look at laws which punish prostitutes but not johns and look at a culture where it's OK to buy and sell women. Jesus did feed the 5,000 ... but a lot more often he spent his time working with small groups or individuals. There's something to be learned there. It doesn't have to be a March on Washington. The work Geoffrey Canada did with the Harlem Children's Zone shows what can happen when we just focus on even one neighborhood. In our region, Rod Jones, CEO at Grace Hill Settlement House, is taking that organization in the same direction in exciting ways (I'm thrilled to be a part of his board and of the Episcopal connection to that work!)

*In St. Louis, a big issue for many problems is how can we stop saying "not my problem" and work regionally for solutions. An example of this is homelessness. The vast majority of homeless services are in the urban core. This attracts the vast majority of homeless people, creating a system that is overloaded with volume so that it's pretty impossible to do anything but provide emergency services. Efforts throughout the wider region to provide homeless services throughout the region are incredibly important -- not just because they hold the potential of spreading out the volume so we can actually have manageable populations and help people move out of homelessness but it builds bridges between city and county that can be used on other problems. (Room at the Inn is a fantastic organization trying to do this in the region).

*I'm learning to look for leaders in different places. I'm learning not to look for them so much in elected office -- though I have met true and bold leaders in elected office. I'm learning to look for them in the business and nonprofit worlds. I'm learning to look for them in the crowd and not just on the podium. I'm learning to look for them in people who exercise more informal authority than formal authority. People who can mobilize resources in their community to do good. Even just downtown, I could start listing them and go on for paragraphs and still leave people out. Look around you. Who are the people in your neighborhood, in your municipality, who get things done ... who connect people and resources for the common good?

It's easy to slip into cynicism. Part of why I can get so reactive against cynicism is that I am so capable of it myself -- and I know that if I go down that road it is like being sucked into a black hole.  The demonic power of cynicism is it convinces good people that the cause is lost. And I absolutely believe that cause is not lost.

In 1 Samuel 17, the people of Israel are faced with a giant who seems undefeatable. They are just "men of Saul" ... and even though Saul is a great leader, they don't believe any among them are equal to the task of felling Goliath.

But then a small, young boy -- probably the last person you would expect -- steps forward. And David speaks a timeless truth -- we are never just people of one leader, we are always people of God.

If we put our trust in any human, any leader -- no matter how talented she or he is -- we are limited in our power and are able to be disappointed. There is no one leader who measures up to the giant challenges before us. But David reminds us that God, "the God who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this uncircumcised Philistine!"

And we know how that story ended.

What is bigger than the challenges in front of us is our God. And we know from Jesus that what God does is bind us together for the common good. There is no need for cynicism or fear. We have a long road to travel, but God is gathering.

What role will you play?