Cover Story

The 'gotcha' clause

Issue: "Keep the faith," June 23, 2001

A minority of the mission directors surveyed said they had found ways to accept governmental aid without compromising their mission. Anita Unger of the Huntington City Mission in West Virginia reported that beginning in 1989, a state mandate "required all West Virginia municipalities with a population of 50,000 or more to provide services to the homeless. The Huntington City Mission (HCM) had been around since 1939 and was the area's only emergency shelter and soup kitchen." The city approached the mission and agreed to pay utility costs; as part of the deal the board of the mission, after long debate, agreed not to require chapel attendance.

Anita Unger said, "We've lived with this change ever since. Sometimes it's OK, sometimes not ... but except for a few 'sticky' issues along the way, HCM and public entities always seem to get along." She said city officials cannot push too hard because of "the mandate. To put it bluntly, if HCM did not or could not keep its doors open, the City of Huntington would have to house 100+ men, women, and children in the Radisson every night. (I call this our 'gotcha' clause.)"

On a larger and more formal scale, the Bowery Mission in New York City has also played "gotcha." New York's city-run shelters in the early '90s had a reputation so bad that many homeless men trying to minimize their risks would sleep outside even in freezing weather. City officials saw the success of the Bowery Mission and asked the Bowery board of directors if they would take city funds to run a shelter on Avenue D, one of the city's harshest slum streets. The catch: Clients could not be required to attend sermons or Bible studies. The board said yes.

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The agreement has allowed 700 men during those seven years to complete nine-month stays at the 77-bed Avenue D shelter. During those months they do chores, participate in relapse-prevention programs, learn interviewing skills, hunt for jobs, and then go to work; they are required to save 75 percent of each paycheck. No such requirement about spiritual provision is in place, and cannot be under the agreement with city officials, but Edward Morgan, CEO over both Bowery and Avenue D, emphasizes the importance of a thoroughly Christian staff and voluntary weekly Bible studies. He speaks of Christianity at the Avenue D shelter being "caught, not taught," and notes that City Hall has not demanded the hiring of non-Christians (or equal opportunity for residents to catch other religions).

Why such forbearance? It seems that while other city-funded shelters produce goose-egged success records, officials do not want to kill the shelter laying golden eggs. The golden eggs are evident: At the nine-month marker Avenue D graduates typically have an improved attitude and $3,000 in the bank, and soon they find apartments and leave. Most are drug-free and employed a year after graduation. Employment success stories-prep cook at restaurant, baggage handler-are bandied about, as are some spiritual success stories-and apart from spiritual change, material changes among long-term homeless individuals rarely last.

The Bowery Mission, with its traditional emphasis on Christianity being not only caught but taught, has a long record of provoking both spiritual and material change, and it remains to be seen whether Avenue D will do as well. The Avenue D approach is viewed with skepticism by many members of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. A typical comment: "I do not see how a Christian ministry cannot teach about Christ. That compromises the ministry and in time leads it to become another government agency. And how will the mission be able to insist on maintenance of spiritual qualifications for those it employs? It might succeed in part for a few years, but it's on a slippery slope."

In any event, the existence of the Bowery and Avenue D programs, under the same board of directors, will provide a terrific opportunity for comparison. It does appear that coexistence with city officials demands a particular type of leadership. Mr. Morgan, 58, worked at General Electric for two decades; for three of them he was writing speeches for tough-minded CEO Jack Welch. Mr. Morgan took a 55 percent pay cut when he left GE, but he did not leave behind his skill in navigating through bureaucracies. The key is to approach officials not hat-in-hand, hoping for funding crumbs, but with an awareness of a mission's strengths and a bureaucracy's needs. That way, one word can come out at the right time: "gotcha."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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