Features

In-sight, in-mind

National | CityTeam challenges government's homeless warehouses

Issue: "A reason to live," March 23, 1996

San Jose, Calif.--Muhammed is a middle-aged African immigrant with intense dark eyes. His oversized, second-hand clothes hang loosely over a gaunt frame. Halting English pushes through his thick Nigerian accent and Muhammed's eyes well with tears as he thinks about CityTeam, a large, privately funded organization devoted to fighting homelessness. "The people here at CityTeam care for me. They have shown me love. No one has ever done that for me before. I was lost before I came here, I was dead. But I have found life here, the Lord has given me life through this ministry."

Not all of the anti-homelessness efforts in largely middle-class San Jose offer such testimonies. In fact, there have been at least two "teams" at work in this city of nearly one million. A private citizen's effort, CityTeam, has fought to help homeless men like Muhammed via personal care and challenge. But a second, government-glutted effort all too typically has hidden away local homeless people in federally funded housing and pretended the problem was solved.

The considerably different outcomes yielded by these opposite efforts provide a living apologetic for why privatized compassion virtually always works better than governmental compassion. The difference, say CityTeam administrators, is between giving someone a house, and giving them "the mentality of a home."

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CityTeam's government-funded counterpart is the Guadalupe Creek Program. City social-service agencies began it in 1990 as a band-aid effort. San Jose wanted to create a public park at Guadalupe Creek near its downtown. But the semi-bucolic area, set in the long shadow of downtown San Jose's gleaming steel high-rise offices, was a major homeless encampment, as well as a civic embarrassment; several hundred people-along with their assorted knickknacks in rusty shopping carts-lived there.

The city assembled a paper-pushing armada of public agencies, including the departments of social service, welfare, housing, mental health, and job development, along with the California State Employment office. They provided the homeless people who had been living at the creek with virtually everything they would "need" to "re-enter" society: Social Security numbers, identification papers, bus passes, and free housing. "We had large tents set up all around the creek," chuckled one official in the San Jose housing department. "It was just like a carnival."

But the majority of the relocated homeless men and women in the program did not fare well in the community. "One person used the apartment we had placed him in as a party house, and he sold drugs out of the place," said the same city official, who refused to be identified in this article for fear of losing his job. "The landlord was pretty upset with us."

Within a few months, it became clear to casual passers-by that many of the people generously provided for by the expensive Guadalupe Creek Project were back on the streets, caught once again in the sticky web of dysfunction spun by their own bad attitudes and habits.

Such ineffectual state-sponsored compassion is a phenomenon Pat Robertson has seen many times before. CityTeam's president, a hulking, balding man with a friendly manner and hearty laugh, is slowly driving his tattered, aging Ford LTD through the glistening, sun-baked streets of San Jose. Mr. Robertson is returning from checking up on one of CityTeam's many programs.

"There is this whole 'homeless movement' in America that thinks that the root problem of homelessness is not having a house," Mr. Robertson says. "The root problem is not houselessness, the real problem is that these folks don't have the mentality of a home. They've cut themselves off from family. The overwhelming majority of them are addicts also, and their addiction causes them to become involved in criminal activities."

CityTeam's private poverty-fighting, in contrast, has a solid success record. More than 65 percent of CityTeam graduates-former hard-core, lifetime addicts and vagrants-remain clean and sober one year after their completion of the 12-month-long, in-residence drug and alcohol recovery program.

At the non-denominational Christian program's headquarters, a spacious, plant-adorned lobby with two-story-high windows and numerous skylights yields to offices humming with the whir of computers, laser printers, and fax machines. More than 3,000 volunteers from scores of area churches and civic groups work alongside 75 full-time staff members, most of whom raise their own support, without spending a single government dollar. CityTeam's annual budget is more than $3.5 million.

CityTeam handles not only material aid to the poor and needy, but also teaches life and social skills via a range of programs including addiction recovery, a home for unwed pregnant women, and summer camps for poor children. Yet its most acclaimed, and duplicated, program is its residential rehabilitation effort.

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