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Churches need help in fighting homelessness

MY VIEW • Faith community deeply involved in assisting homeless population
by: L.E. BASKOW, An apparently homeless man rests on a South Park Blocks bench, across from a downtown church. City and county officials have asked Portland’s churches for help this winter in housing the homeless. This My View writer argues that communities of faith are already helping the homeless, but each needs to do more.

The Portland Tribune recently published an article about how the city of Portland and Multnomah County are approaching churches to help shelter families this winter (Oh Father, Where Art Thou?, Dec. 10).

A central argument made in the article is that churches are not doing enough to help those who are homeless. While I agree that communities of faith can and should do more, the article lacks many examples of where churches are active and how the faith community is (currently) in the planning stages of a major new effort to address the needs of homeless families and homeless students in public schools. The article also failed to mention how Oregon's tax system helps to foster homelessness and poverty.

So, what are churches already doing? The Goose Hollow Family Shelter at First United Methodist Church - which I helped to start and where I later served as the executive director - draws support from more than 20 different congregations. The Daybreak shelter, run by Human Solutions, has support from nearly 20 congregations.

First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Portland, my home congregation and where I was ordained, operated a shelter for homeless youth for seven years until a permanent facility could be built. Last year, evangelical churches raised more than $100,000 to support homeless programs in the metro area. Transition Projects, the largest provider of services to homeless single adults in Portland, was started by the faith community and continues to rely on churches and others for meals and financial support.

JOIN has recently started a partnership with Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and a Greek Orthodox congregation. First Unitarian Church of Portland opened a new day shelter for homeless families this year. Churches in East Multnomah County started SnowCap and continue to provide the bulk of its support and volunteers. In recent years the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness in Washington County has engaged dozens of churches to work on homeless issues. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development supports important projects such as Street Roots.

The faith community is also planning a statewide summit meeting on homeless families and homeless children in public schools to be held early next year. Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon is spearheading the project, and I sit on their public policy committee. The aim of the summit is to address the needs of the 18,000 homeless students now being served by Oregon's public schools. Our hope is to bring together Oregon's interfaith community, elected officials, educators and business leaders to discuss how we can help schools serve these children and to talk about ways to end family homelessness. The summit is being planned to coincide with the February 2010 session of the Oregon Legislature.

Despite the efforts of the faith community, homelessness continues to grow. Ending homelessness will only occur when we build enough housing, provide universal health care, offer living-wage jobs and open enough treatment programs for those suffering from mental health issues and addictions.

The business community could help by throwing its support behind Measures 66 and 67. Right now, many in the business community are opposing these measures - and spending millions of dollars to do so - that would modestly increase taxes on business. Many multi-million dollar corporations get away with paying a $10 (yep, $10) minimum tax in Oregon. Measures 66 and 67 would slightly increase that fee. Without the increase, we'll see further cuts that will lead to reduced services and increased homelessness and poverty. Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and many in the faith community strongly support these two measures.

I've worked on issues of housing, homelessness and health care for more than 20 years in Oregon, and the situation has never been so desperate. We need all hands on deck. If we fail, history will judge us harshly. As a minister in the United Church of Christ, I'm more concerned that today we are failing God's commandment to take care of the least of these.

The Rev. Chuck Currie is a minister in the United Church of Christ in Southwest Portland and serves on the public policy committee for Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. He lives in Northeast Portland.