A Really Big Idea

December 2008

"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." — Jane Addams

The words of Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Jane Addams certainly ring true, as we all deal with the spreading economic crisis. The truth is — the good some obtained was insecure, because stability was not secured for everyone. In my work with Greensboro Urban Ministry, we had two "leading indicators" of this crisis — the number of individuals housed in the Weaver House Emergency Shelter, and the number of families on the wait list for the Pathways Family Emergency Shelter.

In past years, the Weaver House census would have been around 120-150 from mid-December to mid-March, progressively declining to around 65-70 in summer months. Not so in 2008, when the census remained at or near 100% — 84 men and 16 women — since mid-March. Similarly, 25 or so families would normally comprise the wait list for the 16 available Pathways units. In 2008, the number grew each month, reaching 54 families.

A reasonable response to these indicators might be "let's build more emergency shelters." And this reasonable response is what Urban Ministry is trying to change! The problem is this — emergency shelters do nothing to address the root causes of homelessness, termed either "chronic" or "situational." Chronically homeless individuals have a disabling condition — typically both mental health and substance abuse issues — requiring counseling and case management services to address their needs. Situationally homeless individuals or families have had some hard luck — extended illness or loss of job — which depleted their savings and led to eviction.

In neither case do more emergency shelter beds address the basic needs of these people. What is needed? To rapidly rehouse the person or family — through a program called "Housing First" — into permanent (not emergency) housing, and simultaneously provide appropriate supportive services.

Chronically homeless individuals are being served through Guilford County's 10 Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. During 2007, case manager Mitch McGee led Guilford County's pilot "Housing First" program, successfully helping 44 clients in just 6 months! In 2008, Partners Ending Homelessness was launched to increase the scope and awareness of these efforts, which now has 77 clients successfully housed!

Situationally homeless families are targeted by Greensboro Urban Ministry through its "Beyond Pathways" program, modeled on "Housing First." Begun in Fall 2008 with seed funding from the Nancy Richmond Hudson Estate, several congregations volunteered to pilot test this program, and to contribute time or money to:

  • Work with the families as "Welcome Home" teams on budget development, moving, household setup, and short-term transportation needs.
  • Provide some funds to pay back bills and prepay a few months' housing expenses, helping the family regain its financial footing and restore its sense of self-worth.

Combining permanent housing and supportive services? A simple and effective idea. Permanently ending homelessness? A really big idea! What is required to make this big idea a reality in our community? Time, talent, treasure, hope — and belief in a really big God.

"Ideas are only as deep as the thinker's view of God." — Juris Rubenis

You can make a difference — get involved!

How to get started? Call — Mike Aiken at Greensboro Urban Ministry (336.271.5959 ext 302), Jehan Benton at Partners Ending Homelessness (336.889.6105 ext 1133) or me (336.297.4200 ext 11)!

Todd L. Herman

Todd L. Herman

Getting Involved

Chronic Individual Homelessness

Family Homelessness

  • Greensboro Urban Ministry web site —
  • Beyond Pathways — A fuller explanation of this new Greensboro Urban Ministry program.
  • "Home at Last?" — An excellent "NOW" video report from PBS on the social — and economic — success of the "Housing First" program in New York City.
  • "Keys: Ending Family Homelessness" — An informative short video on "Housing First" for families — including the additional health, social, academic, and mental risks facing children of homeless families.

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