City smarts

"City smarts" Continued...

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

WORLD: You write about your ministry's experience in building new homes in a low-income area and finding out years later that many of them had become centers of criminal activity. What did that experience teach you, and what "decisive, corrective action" did you have to take?

LUPTON: Early on we believed that home ownership for poor families was sufficient to produce both pride and self-sufficiency. What we did not realize until some years down the road is that clustering these affordable homes together in one section of the community had the effect of concentrating poverty. Instead of property values appreciating and the neighborhood improving, homes deteriorated and negative attitudes and behaviors that often accompany chronic poverty took root.

Several of the homes we built became hang-outs for drug pushers and thieves. We eventually had to evict the residents, upgrade the homes, and sell them to stable, middle-income families whose commitment and leadership were strong enough to establish positive norms in the community. We learned through painful and expensive lessons that health flourishes in mixed-income neighborhoods, not isolated blocks of poverty.

WORLD: You write about your community feeding program: "Over time our faithful volunteers who sacrificially gave up their time to prepare and serve hot meals and clean up afterward began to ask if the people they served ever got jobs and moved out of poverty. These same people, they observed, were in the food line every week and had been for many months. . . . Was this really helping the poor to get on their feet or was it fostering dependency?" Once you asked that question, what happened?

LUPTON: Eventually our volunteers asked the recipients to assist with cleaning up after the meal. They also invited recipients to help serve the meals. The distribution of canned goods, which was always a troublesome and often a quarrelsome process, improved as community residents took on a larger role in bagging and passing out the free food. This joint participation helped to improve relationships but it did not address the dependency issue.

Our current solution to these food challenges came with the creation of food co-ops. Community members who elected to join paid a couple dollars per week into a fund managed by the church to purchase surplus food from the city food bank. Co-op members order, pick up, sort, and deliver food for each other in an equitable manner. They often fix meals for each other at the church from the food they have purchased. In this way the poor take ownership and control of their own food program. It has worked quite well. We now have four co-ops with 40+ members in each.

WORLD: You describe a plan to open a big "drug treatment facility in an inner-city community that was plagued by drug abuse"-yet, when you saw that the neighborhood was starting to become gentrified, you opposed building the big facility and suggested that the organization instead buy a large old house or two and create a small program. Why?

LUPTON: A large treatment facility may well provide a much-needed service to a drug-infested neighborhood. But if that community is beginning to stir with new life and gentrification is bringing young professionals back, it is safe to assume that the number of addicted residents will soon be diminishing. In time the treatment center will need to draw its clients from other parts of the city, a practice that the reviving community will likely find objectionable-and for good reason.

If a neighborhood is to regain its health, the number of troubling and troubled residents must decrease. Any program that brings more need (or problems) into the community will find itself at cross-purposes with revitalization efforts. Establishing a treatment center in a large residence or two (as opposed to building an institutional facility) would allow a program to shrink in size and convert back to residential use when the need in the community decreases.

WORLD: You note the tendency of ministries, agencies, and institutions to "become self-serving, even when their stated mission is to serve others. They quite quickly form systems and strategies that favor the interests of the institutions over the people they serve and the communities where they are located." How can ministries avoid that common tendency?

LUPTON: I asked a group of PhDs in organizational development that same question when I was first setting up our ministry. They told me that I was asking them to "institutionalize non-institutionalization"-an impossible task. But I could retard the process, they told me. Don't hire staff. As soon as you do they will have a vested interest in preserving the organization for their own security. Instead, facilitate visionaries to carry out their callings.


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