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Rebuilding lives

"Rebuilding lives" Continued...

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

He did so on July 21, 2003. The first few weeks were very difficult: no drinking, no drugs, no leaving the building. But he enrolled in the Resident Recovery Program and became a maintenance man because of his work experience. He loved the work therapy part of the day because he got to do things he loved, like painting, building, and fixing. He found the most helpful times those when all the residents would get together, share their struggles, and encourage one another.

What impressed him also was the staff, which seemed to care for him more than they did for themselves. They kept the residents accountable. When he attended a graduation ceremony for the program and saw those few men in blue gowns and caps walking across the platform, he decided to finish the program, no matter the cost. He took an English class to improve his writing and speaking skills, as well as a computer course that taught him how to make a computer from the parts of other broken computers. The passion to become a new man became greater than the temptation to leave.

On graduation day, about 11 months later, Bob walked across the carpeted platform in the chapel of the NYCRM a different man, a new man: "I was 100 percent better, completely transformed. The only addiction I have now is the Lord. He is the only thing I can't seem to get enough of." Bob remarried, and in 2007 he walked his daughter who formerly hated him down the aisle at her wedding.

-Adam Kail is a writer in Denver and works for Colorado State University

Crucial question: Do you want to get well?

By Marvin Olasky

James Allen Walker for WORLD

I've interviewed homeless men who live on the streets because they do not want to abide by the discipline that a shelter like the New York City Rescue Mission imposes. For them, the period from Thanksgiving through Christmas is the best month of the year for garnering dollars and food from passersby who feel guilty.

Christian mission directors in past years have often told me that they wish people would not give in this way to homeless men on the street, because it enables them to maintain a lifestyle that frequently involves alcohol and drugs. The mission directors want these homeless men to realize their need to come in from the cold.

The federal government during the past several years has moved to a "Housing First" policy, which means giving people apartments without requiring that they abandon drinking or drugging. Some "Housing First" advocates believe the move from alley to apartment will transform troubled spirits. Others want to clean up eyesores; beggars are bad for business and tourism. Still others don't want to infringe on the liberty to commit slow suicide: Alcoholism and addiction are merely alternative lifestyles, and who are we to judge?

Michael VandenBerg, until recently the executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries of Holland, Mich., argues that "rapid rehousing is entirely appropriate in some instances. When the causes have been situational in nature-loss of job-then to re-house rapidly without consideration of other causalities is appropriate."

He says the situation is different when "homelessness is the result of addictions" and other personal problems, and he faults the Housing First model for not recognizing "that homelessness is generally a symptom of other problems." Leaders at Wheeler Mission Ministries, a longtime Christian homeless shelter in Indianapolis, have similar concerns. Chief Operating Officer Larry Wright calls Housing First a concept that "cares about appearances-get them off the streets-and ends up providing a lot of good-looking crack houses." He labeled it "a program to benefit the rich, not the poor."

Those observations align with what I've seen and heard over two decades: Some who are homeless merely need an apartment: It's good and right to help them. Others, though, have spiritual and psychological problems that the provision of housing will hide but not fix. Good Samaritan Ministries, by working on the problems and not just their surface manifestations, has had success that researchers from Hope College quantified in a study last year: Most clients after finishing the ministry's program not only had stable housing but were steadily employed and had developed both reliable transportation and a support system.

Some say that offering aid, without pushing for change, is a Christian obligation. And yet, consider what Christ says in chapter 5 of John's Gospel when He talks directly to a man who has been an invalid for 38 years. That man has become accustomed to spending his days by a pool at Bethesda said to have medicinal qualities, but Jesus asks him a probing question: "Do you want to get well?" Crucially, the question is not, "Do you want to walk?" Jesus asks about getting well. He does not assume that the man, despite being in a pitiful condition, wants to get well.

Jesus also understands our ignorance. When the invalid gives a materialist explanation of his problem-"I have no one to help me get into the pool when the water is stirred"-Jesus ignores his desire to keep doing what has already failed to help. Instead, Jesus challenges the man: "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." He offers miraculous healing and tells the man to become a responsible member of society, one who does not leave his mat behind but walks away with it.

None of us has miraculous powers, so we cannot end paralysis or homelessness in the same way Jesus did-but we can work on paralysis of the will. Some may suggest that getting a person off the streets will remove his desire for alcohol or drugs, but the actual result is often the opposite: Freed from having to find a place to sleep, the alcoholic or addicted homeless man, now homed, can home in on his daily drugs.

Some among the chronically homeless are mentally ill and would benefit from institutionalization. Children certainly need to be off the streets. But many who have worked for years with homeless adults speak of the need for them to "hit bottom" before they are ready to give a positive response to that most basic of questions, "Do you want to get well?" For them, "housing first" is false compassion.

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