April 1st of 2011, Union Rescue Mission, in some eyes, made a controversial decision to ask our guests who were able, to begin paying part of their way. The decision was made with a lot of thought, planning, and prayer.
There is no question that the economy was a factor in the decision, but it goes much deeper than that.
Let me start by saying that I have long believed in guests paying part of their own way thanks to the influence of the grandfather of Christian Community Development, Dr. John Perkins, and his book, “Let Justice Roll Down.” John taught me that the dignity of people is affirmed when they can pay their own way, at least in part, instead of having everything handed down to them as charity. John and I both feel that people are empowered when they can learn to provide for themselves.
I also had the distinct opportunity to begin my Missions career at the Door of Faith Mission in Des Moines. A Mission, I quickly learned that was ahead of its time. My prior Missions’ experience was as a teenager accompanying my dad. He would preach and I would sing. We’d walk into a Mission he was scheduled to preach at , see the guys lined up, many of them intoxicated, and then watch as they moved to an area where they had to sit and listen to a message (my dad and I) before they could eat. Routinely we would see a fellow fall out of his chair. After the message, the men would be served a piece of day old bread and some watery soup, before they were allowed to go to bed for the night. That was the picture I had of a Mission as I walked in to The Door of Faith Mission to apply for a job as the Associate Director 25 years ago.
However, when I entered the Door of Faith, I noticed that the guys were all sober, neat and clean, and the food portions were substantial. I was intrigued. I learned that the Founder of the Door of Faith, George Holloway had experienced homelessness for 37 years. He had travelled the country and experienced Missions first hand. He found Christ at either the LA Mission or Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. And, when he arrived in Des Moines, he decided to start a Mission that was unique. George felt that it was hard to get sober when surrounded by people who were drinking or using so he had an expectation of sobriety, and instituted a breath test, and later I added drug testing to assist. George also felt that men would feel better about themselves if they worked and paid a part of their own way, so he instituted a $6 a day fee, and this produced about 1/3 of the needed income for the Mission each day, while the other 2/3rds came from generous individuals and partner churches. I later instituted a gradually rising daily fee after 3 months so that around 6 months later, when men began to pay $8 per day, they began to consider relocating to nearby apartments. George also believed that feeding men well helped them battle their addiction and strengthened them to go out and work hard to earn their pay, so he moved from what was known as soup kitchens to serving heaping portions at what we later called “The Faith Café”.
As I arrived at Union Rescue Mission nearly seven years ago, an impressive, historic place with a long tradition, I brought this idea of paying your own way with me. When I brought up the idea in my interview, I could tell it was met with a look of “We’ve never done it that way!”, so I dropped it until I at least got hired! J
Four years later, when the economy worsened and our finances tightened, I broached the subject again. It was again met with skepticism, caution, and the idea was put on hold.
Probably 18 months ago, the recession was putting a squeeze on URM and our future was not at all certain. I was being pressed by the Board of Directors to come up with a strong sustainability plan, and as part of the sustainability plan, I introduced a Pilot Program, the Gateway Program, to implement with only 10%, or 50 of our guest beds, ½ on the women’s side, and ½ on the men’s side. To assist in my proposal, I shared with the Board that the idea came not just from me, but from one of our front line staff members, who was frustrated that many of our guests had substantial incomes, even more than $1000 per month, yet they would fritter away and use up all of their funds in a few short days and rely on the charity of URM the rest of the month for their meals and bed. This hurt our not highly paid staff member to see this charity taken advantage of.
I was allowed to implement the Gateway program into 10% of our guest beds. It worked like this; guests who had an income from Social Security, Social Security Disability, Veteran’s benefits, or General Relief would pay $7 per day, of which $2 would be placed into their personal savings fund. The extra $5 would pay for more intense case management for the guest, there would be an expectation of sobriety, attendance at some educational and life transforming classes, we would add a foot locker under their bunk so that their belongings would be safe and secure, and they would be allowed to rest in their bunks at any time rather than retreating to the guest area each day. I blogged about the pilot program, Twittered and Facebooked in hopes of alerting the public of the change and receiving most of the questions and criticism up front during the trial rather than later when I hoped to fully implement this program. We did make the news and received good questions and some criticism up front.
We operated the 50 beds this way for a number of months, and then an even greater financial squeeze came on URM and even more pressure for a stronger sustainability plan came from the Board of Directors, and the only additional step that I could think of was to broaden the Gateway Program from Pilot to full implementation to all 300 guest beds. This would not only implement what I always believed as a philosophy, but would also produce about $40,000 of much needed funds each month; equal to 1 day of our operating budget. I also strongly believed it would have great benefit to our guests.
I’ve always believed that if you had 1000 beds for people to crash in any condition, you’d have 1000 people crashing in any condition, and if you had 1000 beds with high expectations for people to help themselves, you’d have 1000 people working hard and helping themselves.
We began to alert our guests of the change 90 days out. Again, I blogged about the success of the pilot and the coming change. We also invited community activists and bloggers in to discuss the change. One supported it strongly while others had doubts, but at least we had informed them of the coming change. Believe it or not, on April 1st, we instituted the change.
Men were grabbing the communications off of the wall and trashing them in disgust, saying, “is this a cruel April 1st joke?” One man asked me, “What are you trying to do to me?” I replied, “I’m trying to get you to help yourself and I am trying to keep this place open for all!” “OK”, was his response.
So, on April 1st, 2011, the worsening economy provided the opportunity to implement this new approach at URM. We eased it in with good planning and care. The first 5 days are free for all, allowing folks to decide between the Gateway Program, our free long-term Life Transformation programs in which they will not pay fees but they will invest a lot of time and effort, or relocating elsewhere. Immediately, our guest bed count went from 300 to 170, and dropped off especially significantly on our women’s side which surprised me. The women, many of whom had substantial resources, were more reluctant to give part of their resources and chose the cold sidewalk rather than handing over any of their income. This was and is heartbreaking to me.
However, many of the remaining guests came to me and said, “What you’ve done has transformed the Mission. Everyone who was causing problems and not working on their lives left and only those who care and want to try stayed.” Or “You’ve turned this place from a den of anger and rebellion to a place of peace.”
I was encouraged, but it was not without controversy. During a drive back through the mountains from vacation I received an alarming call from a big radio station about our “charging rent” to URM guests. This was followed by news agencies from all around, including the LA Times, NPR, and others inquiring about this new approach and it was difficult, though not impossible to share that it was not just the recession that brought this about, but a firm philosophy that we believe that people feel better about themselves and are empowered when they pay a portion of their own way.
Soon, the numbers began to grow and today we have 295 guests. 132 men and 86 women are paying the fee. Another 58 men and 24 women are in the 5 day free period, and a few without an income of any kind are allowed to stay if they volunteer a few hours a week.
The number of men enrolling in our long-term program has risen 20% and 100 of our Gateway guests have secured permanent housing and moved on since implementation. Our emergency and police calls have been greatly reduced, and with this change and one other, we’ve been able to lower our security costs. Our front-line staff thanks me each day for reducing their workload, their stress and their efforts to keep the mission in clean working order.
The other change also goes back to the Door of Faith. At the Door of Faith, we fed guests staying with us 3 times a day, but the outside public only once, at lunch. URM had been feeding overnight guests and outside public visitors 3 times per day. At times it was dangerous and our daily meal count was quickly approaching 5000 due to the recession, a number that might not be sustainable and might take us under. So, we moved from feeding outside guests 3 times per day to only once, at lunch. In hindsight, it was wise that we did, because even with that move, our meals are only down 15% from last year. Can you imagine the numbers we would be feeding if we were still offered 3 meals per day to outside visitors? This also goes with my philosophy, that simply letting folks be on the street and report for 3 meals a day with no expectations is not helpful to them. Now we utilize the 3 hour window at lunchtime, 12 to 3, to recruit our outside guests and invite them to become part of URM and enjoy the 3 meals and all that comes with being part of our Gateway Program or Life Transformation Programs.
Despite the positive impact we are seeing, we’ve heard that a radical activist group, LA CAN, is preparing to sue us over our Gateway Program. They’ve even handed out flyers to our guests telling them that LA CAN will assist them in suing us for charging “rent”. All I can say is that some times when certain people attack you it is affirmation that you are doing the right thing.
Blessings, Andy B.