Interfaith Coalitions Intervene to Address Homelessness

On Tuesday mornings, Bentley Stewart prepares to share a meal with several dozen of his friends experiencing homelessness. Before they eat, Stewart passes a feather around the circle and asks people to share whatever is on their heart. Some speak of a profound, heartbreaking prayer request. Others read a weather report. One man stands up and sings.

The off-key song is somewhat awkward, somewhat long, and a little wild, but “we’re all a little wild, and if you’re living with the traumatization of living outdoors, of course you’re a little wild,” Stewart said.

This is the Marin Street Chaplaincy in San Rafael, Calif. It exists to engage the community in creating relationships with those who are living on the margins.

“You get to hear stories about someone’s life and what brought them to this point,” said Rev. Scott Quinn, Executive Director of the Marin Interfaith Council (MIC), which is a United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circle and the fiscal parent to the Marin Street Chaplaincy. “There’s some mutual humanity expressed in that. There’s connection and community in relationships,” he said.

To do this, the Chaplaincy hosts two events each week: a Tuesday morning wellness group and breakfast and a Friday evening coffee break at a local coffee house. Stewart, who was appointed as interfaith director of the Marin Street Chaplaincy this past April following his predecessor Paul Gaffney, is continuing these traditions and actively looking into sustainable philanthropy models that will continue to better serve the homeless community. This includes building relationships with other faith communities because, although the wellness group is held in a Presbyterian church, the Chaplaincy wants to make sure they “are not making anyone do anything that’s spiritual imperialism,” Stewart said.

“Quality chaplaincy is about me being willing to be with the person in front of me, wherever they are, and sitting with them long enough so I can reflect back to them the dignity and sacred work that is within them,” Stewart said.

This interfaith model of outreach is an important part of the work other United Religions Initiative (URI) Cooperation Circles to do support those without homes. Florence Homolka is the Coordinator at Lalitamba Saranam in New York City. According to her, Lalitamba focuses on universal teachings in all religions to create relationships with those who come to them for help.

“We have our finger on the pulse of what happens in the community.” –Rev. Will McGarvey, Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County

Lalitamba, which has been a member of URI for two years, is a home for women from ages 18 to 25 who are in transition or survivors of domestic violence. Homolka said that the Cooperation Circle’s partnership with URI creates a forum for them to talk about how different religions would respond to anything that arises in the shelter — from difficult problems to reasons to celebrate.

Because of the interfaith integration, there is a better understanding of different holidays or dietary restrictions, Homolka said. When a woman from an indigenous tribe in Peru ended up on Lalitamba’s door, the shelter celebrated her birthday with a vegan dessert to honor her food preferences.

“If someone wants to do something to honor their tradition, we find a way to support that,” Homolka said. “There’s an openness where everyone’s accepted where they are,” — an important factor other Cooperation Circles have found in any community outreach.

Accepting people as they come is key for the Winter Nights Shelter, which is run by the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, Calif. Executive Director Rev. Will McGarvey said, “We wouldn’t be able to do the programming we do if we weren’t open about our differences and similarities. A lot of the programs we have are about understanding and even celebrating difference and knowing how we can serve together.”

Winter Nights Shelter sets up tents in congregations for two week intervals where families can prepare to get back on their feet.

The Winter Nights Shelter is a 15-year-old rotating shelter that operates out of partner congregations for two weeks intervals: families are hosted in tents and sleeping bags in community spaces of Evangelical churches, Jewish synagogues, Quaker communities and more. Their belongings are kept secure throughout the day and when the two weeks are up, everything is packed up and sent to the next congregation.

The Winter Nights Shelter also works with families to get them placed in more permanent housing within 60 to 90 days. A project manager creates a plan with clients for how they will meet their goals and develop the skills they need to break whatever patterns lead to their current situation.

“It’s one of the most well-considered programs in our county,” McGarvey said. “We’re able to do other advocacy for the homeless based on [the community’s knowledge] of what we’re doing. We have our finger on the pulse of what happens in the community.”

This understanding and dialogue about what makes people poor and keeps them poor allows the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County to advocate at the county and state levels, through initiatives such as creating a Racial Justice Task Force, which raises awareness around how race and documentation status can contribute to a lack of resources for families.

When Cooperation Circles dig deeper into what causes poverty, they move from a mission-mindset to figuring out how people can be empowered and learn to help themselves.

“I feel that the people who are roaming our streets right now have a story of redemption to teach us,” Stewart said. “I want to bring as much of Marin into contact with them so they are activated to do something about our world’s injustices.”

The Marin Interfaith Council and Chaplaincy uses the model of Iain De Jong, a researcher in community-development from Toronto, Canada. According to De Jong, 70 percent of people who become homeless will self-resolve. Quinn, Executive Director of Marin Interfaith Council, said that there’s a smaller percentage of people who are chronically homeless.

“We need to really put our focus on the people who won’t be able to solve [their current homeless situation] on their own without some assistance,” Quinn said. “That’s the call of our faith traditions now in this political climate where it’s easy for us to lose track of the core call we have as people of faith, [which is to] have a particular concern for the most vulnerable among us.”

This piece was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Grace King. You can read more of her work here