Until my daughter invited me to an annual banquet in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, aimed at raising funds for homeless women, that problem was not on my conscience radar.
When I was told that because of the recession, the problem of homelessness was actually on the rise, I was in total disbelief. How can such a thing happen in the land of the free and the brave?
I was also aware that the United States federal government administers 101 programmes aimed at helping the poor. Surely, anybody in need should be able to jump on the bandwagon somehow, somewhere. Apparently many fail to do, leaving seven million without sustenance.
I had heard the story that in 1981, when United Church of Christ Reverend Thomas Weaver closed the doors of his church on Christmas eve and was about to leave for home, he noticed a "bunch of indigents" huddled together in the cold wintry night by the side of his church. He retraced his steps, and a revelation came to him. Surely Mary and Joseph were turned away from shelter in like manner and ended up in a horse stable.
His decision, which was to change the face of Pittsburgh, could have ended his own career as a pastor. Without seeking permission from the ruling church council, he opened the doors and allowed the indigents to sleep inside the sanctuary, an action for which he could have been fired.
As soon as they had taken this action, they found the problem to be bigger than they had anticipated. Thirty years later, Lois Mufuka Martin, M.Ed. was appointed executive director of Bethlehem Haven, a shelter for women. She says; "These women come to us with their lives in pieces, and they look to us to find the strength to put it all back together. Through our four principles of compassion, hospitality, integrity and empowerment, we instill in them the skills and self confidence needed to rebuild their lives and to restore hope."
Martin was born in Zimbabwe. Close to her grandfather, Brigadier Miles Mufuka of the Salvation Army, whom she adored, she grew up in an atmosphere of social activism. Service and activism runs through her blood. What makes Bethlehem Haven different is its faith inspired emphasis on the reconnection of the human soul and the body. A homeless person loses both his/her self worth as well as her bodily pride.
It is not the 11 000 nights of shelter they have provided, nor the 60 000 meals, nor the 600 people they have served in the last year that matter, it is that idea of restoration of human worth, which only faith based organisations offer, that separates them from government services.
Some things look ridiculous in the context of the US. It is ridiculous for anybody to go hungry when the US Food Programme was stopped from throwing away tonnes of corn (wheat) and cheese in the Atlantic Ocean.
The US government will actually send restaurant owners to a jailhouse if they are found giving away surplus food after hours.
The nation has been riveted by an account in Washington Post by Anne Gowen, who interviewed Veronica Witherspoon, a veteran from Iraq. Witherspoon became homeless when she returned from Iraq. The US veterans affairs says that in the last year alone, 14 847 female veterans have been classified as at risk.
Government departments fall short because they compartmentalise homelessness into food, shelter, mental problems and joblessness. Faith-based organisations, such as Bethlehem Haven have an advantage in that they regard the human person holistically. Bethlehem Haven runs a clinic, has access to a worship centre, an academic unit and a job search as well as a housing search unit. The ridiculous government cannot see that a person with mental issues cannot be treated only for that problem, without including other forms of restorative training as well.
The government is far behind. Only on June 5, the US government announced a new programme (in addition to the 101 programmes already in existence) entitled Keeping Families Together. Please readers, it is unkind to laugh.
The government seems to be recognising, for the first time, that a homeless female, more than likely has a child, may be an active substance abuser and is definitely in a disruptive interpersonal relationships.
Giving the female bread alone is not enough. Please don't laugh. These ridiculous government apparatchiks are really thick in the head. They have not heard, nor do they wish to hear that: "Thou fool, dost thou not know that man does not live by bread alone?"
While governments can help, experience has shown that their view of homelessness is an impediment to long term solutions. Homelessness comes in three parts, transitional, episodic (in and out of homelessness status) and chronic. Half the seven million homeless people are women with children. The other half is made up of substance abusers, people with mental issues and people in disruptive behaviour relationship patterns.
Most government programmes only address periodic and episodic situations rather than offer permanent solutions. Women with children are likely to have experienced disruptive relational behaviours. Feeding them without correcting behaviour patterns only increases and abates their predisposition to disruptive behaviour.
In my opinion, only faith organisations have a grasp of what it takes (the whole person) to achieve permanent relief.
Assisted by Lois Mufuka Martin, M Ed, executive director at Bethlehem Haven, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.