Homelessness in Twin Cities’ suburbs: What should the faith community do?

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An upcoming forum in Maplewood on homelessness in the suburbs got me thinking about a hot-button debate that’s been sizzling since President George H.W. Bush’s administration: What should the role of the faith community be in helping the poor?

You’ll recall that Bush and others advocated an expanded role. At his inaugural in 1989 Bush asked those he called the “thousand points of light” to work hand in hand with government to solve problems such as poverty and homelessness. 

Said our 41st  : “The old solution, the old way, was to think that public money alone could end these problems. But we have learned that is not so. And in any case, our funds are low. We have a deficit to bring down.”

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Critics dismiss his position as little more than an excuse to spend less on government anti-poverty programs.

The Rev. Greg Boyd, pastor at Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, is the keynote speaker at the Feb. 8 faith community meeting to discuss homelessness in suburban Ramsey County. 

Boyd (no relation to me, by the way) advocates a partnership between faith and “secular” communities, though he goes out of his way to draw a dividing line between church and state. “I don’t believe it’s ever the church’s job to weigh in on partisan politics,” he told me. (He detailed those views in a 2006 New York Times story about himself and the evangelical mega church he founded.)   

Addressing issues of poverty and homelessness, he told me, is not just a nice thing or politically correct thing to do, “it’s right at the center of what it is to be a follower of Jesus.”

Boyd added: “It’s our responsibility to assume responsibility for the poor and homeless, not to default and say that it’s government’s job.”

And it will be a big job, even in the suburbs. Carol Zierman, coordinator of Heading Home Ramsey, a sponsor of the meeting, along with Suburban Ramsey Family Collaborative, said statistics on homeless school children show “there’s really something pretty dramatic going on.”

Homeless in the suburbs
The numbers of homeless school children in St. Paul and Ramsey County suburban schools have almost doubled in the past five years, to 1,996, said Zierman. 

In St. Paul schools, numbers rose 53 percent, she said. In the suburbs – specifically North St. Paul-Maplewood Oakdale, Roseville and White Bear Lake districts – numbers shot up 205 percent to 393 children. Only the Mounds View district had fewer homeless children last school year than 2005; eight fewer for a total of 52. 

(Zierman cautions that accurate numbers of homeless persons living in the suburbs are often difficult to gather because they’re almost invisible because the homeless often move in with friends or families, so numbers seekers turn to the schools for a count.)

Though Boyd speaks from the perspective of the Christian church, representatives of temples, mosques and nonprofit organizations also have been invited to the Community Forum for Faith Community Partners. The meeting comes at a time, of course, when the economic recession has caused homeless numbers to soar and state, county and city governments to severely tighten their belts.

The forum runs from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 8 at Woodland Hills Church, 1740 Van Dyke St. Expect to hear from some who have been homeless, as well as those who work with homeless families and individuals, including representatives from school districts and social service organizations and to discuss strategies to end homelessness. (Participants are asked to register by Feb. 1 here.) But don’t get the wrong idea. The forum is not intended to be a debate on the role of government and the faith community on issues of poverty.

The goal, said Ann Markovich,  a Woodland Hills staffer working with the event, is “to see what we’re doing and to challenge the faith community to step up and do more and to network.”

Boyd takes a practical view.  “People on the street don’t care who builds them a home; they just need some food and training and a place to live. We will partner with anybody who gets this done,” he said.

Still, the government’s role in dealing with poverty is an important public policy issue. What do you think? Does the government have a primary role? Or do faith communities and other private parties have a similar role? And what about those of you who think it’s up to the poor to solve their own problems? Make your case in the comments below.