Most people assume that churches are, or should be, concerned about feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and sheltering the homeless, so the announcement of a conference aimed at getting churches to focus on meeting housing needs for the poor hardly seems unusual.
Yet some ministers say the conference -- which is called "Taking Action on Shelter & Housing" and which begins tomorrow at the District's Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church -- could lay the groundwork for placing churches in the forefront of developing solutions for the growing housing problems in the metropolitan area. The District alone has as many as 10,000 homeless people, and about 13,000 people are on a waiting list for public housing.
Some District churches have for years provided shelter for the homeless, pleaded for funds to rescue tenants from evictions and advocated the construction of low-income housing. But ministers say that those efforts have been isolated and that fear of the unknown has stopped many churches from operating shelters or building houses for the poor.
At the conference, church representatives and community groups will have the opportunity to share their efforts to establish housing programs and to discuss ways to expand such efforts by forming a network. The conference is funded by a grant from the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. City Council Chairman David A. Clarke will be the keynote speaker.
Some ministers and shelter providers scheduled to participate in discussions and workshops at the conference want churches to advocate innovative solutions that go beyond providing beds and meals. They believe a variety of services, including counseling and assistance in finding jobs, is crucial to ending the cycle of homelessness.
The Rev. John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church, which has a 300-member congregation and runs nine shelter houses, is convinced that local churches have vast resources. "Small churches can do a lot," said Steinbruck, "and some churches have memberships in the thousands and endowments in the millions. Every church steeple in this city should be as synonymous with hospitality houses as McDonald's arches are with hamburgers."
The Rev. Terry Wingate, pastor of Purity Baptist Church, is convinced that there is a new attitude among District churches.
"Something has changed," said Wingate. "There is a realization that we don't need to be beggars. We need to be equippers. We need to equip our people to do what they need to do for themselves. We have depended on the government, but as the government lessens its role we're going to have to be more positive in our own stand."
That position has been reflected in other actions and proposals in recent months that have had the effect of shifting the burden away from the District government and toward creative solutions.
For example, after Community for Creative Non-Violence leader Mitch Snyder succeeded in getting the federal government to pledge $5 million of the estimated $7.5 million cost of renovating the shelter for the homeless at Second and D streets NW, he did not turn to the District government for the remainding funds. Instead, he announced that he would raise the money in Hollywood, where he plans to go in May for the preview of the made-for-television movie about CCNV's work with the homeless.
Even elected officials are searching for ways to alter the government's role. City Council members H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and John Ray (D-At Large) have proposed plans to help welfare recipients get jobs.
Although Crawford's program would be mandatory and Ray's optional, each is designed to reduce the dependency on public assistance by helping the recipients develop skills enabling them to become self-supporting.
Pointing out that the city's annual bill for aid to families with dependent children is about $40 million, Ray noted that without changes "the welfare system will cost the city nearly a half-billion dollars by the end of the century . . . an obvious strain on the city's financial resources."
City officials have also developed programs and enacted legislation that give businesses and landlords incentives to take greater roles in revitalizing neighborhoods through economic development projects and making abandoned buildings habitable.
The government's diminishing role is in part a reflection of limited funds and in part a realization by some that the government has failed to live up to expectations. In the case of housing, those who work with the poor are convinced that churches and other community forces seeking to supplement government programs need to formalize their assistance citywide to achieve the best results.
Matilde Springer, a case worker for Catholic Charities, was faced this week with trying to find $800 in a few hours to help a 30-year-old man pay back rent to avoid eviction. She raised the money, but not in time to prevent the eviction.
"There is a great need," said Springer. "I'm hoping that the churches will come to some agreement. The problem has reached the point where we can no longer just talk about it."