Thirty-three graduates in cap and gown walked proudly across the stage last Sunday as we celebrated together the 12 months of hard work they had accomplished in graduating from Union Rescue Mission’s Men’s Life Transformation Program. Friends and family packed the Chapel, acknowledging their feat with a standing ovation. Graduate Brian Mitchell said it best, “I am a completely different man than the man who entered Union Rescue Mission!” Brian’s lovely girl friend, thankful mom, and proud Uncle and Aunt were overflowing with joy at what has happened in Brian’s life.
This celebration is the life blood of Union Rescue Mission. Seeing lives completely transformed, hearing powerful stories of change, like, “I used to be the guy addicted to crack laying out on that sidewalk out there (pointing to Skid Row), now I am leading my work team, leading worship in Chapel, volunteering to help others, speaking before the City Council, and visiting my mom for the first time in 30 years!”, and viewing the changed men and women right before our eyes keeps us motivated to do this work every day with every ounce of our being.
This is why Support Life Transformation Programs is the 9th vital Step in our http://youarethemission.org initiative to end homelessness as we know it in Los Angeles. Many, in fact most who enter into the experience of homelessness have significant barriers to overcome before they can return to a productive life on their own. Devastating emotional impacts, addiction issues, insufficient job, life or people skills are all conditions that hold people back and keep them trapped in a cycle of homelessness and poverty. These barriers are not insurmountable or permanent, but usually take a structured, long-term recovery process that is available here at Union Rescue Mission, our own Hope Gardens Family Center, the Los Angeles Mission, Midnight Mission, the Salvation Army, the Weingart Center and others. These agencies have helped thousands of individuals and families address and overcome their obstacles and return to the community as productive citizens.
These amazing agencies should not be overlooked by the current push by many to take a Housing First and Only approach to ending homelessness.
Do not get me wrong, as some have, we believe in the Housing First approach for the 10% to 20% of people who have been devastated by long term, chronic homelessness and are dealing with serious health, mental health, and addiction issues as a result of living on the streets for years. Housing First is absolutely the best approach for this group of precious people experiencing homelessness. In fact, we are pushing for this approach for the final 750 precious individuals still left on the streets of Skid Row.
However, a Housing First and Only approach would have been a disservice to the 33 proud men who walked the stage last week, and to all who walk similar stages after completing a Life Transformation Program. To place them in a permanently subsidized housing unit with little expectation rather than encourage them through a rigorous exercise in transformation would cheat them out of finding their destiny. As I closed the service, I shared the story of a graduate from 1938 named Joseph Mitchell. He left Union Rescue Mission to create two popular games, Don’t Break the Ice, and Don’t Spill the Beans! Last year, during an unparalleled financial crisis, his estate left us an $800,000 bequest. He gave the rest of his estate to the Billy Graham Crusade.
My final charge to our graduates is equally appropriate for our staff and the faithful friends who join us in the fight to end our city’s reign as the homeless capital of the nation. “We have high hopes for you! We expect you to go out and conquer the world!”