Across the country, American cities are unsuccessfully grappling with how best to address homelessness. This month, Austin criminalized sitting, lying, or camping in public. Sausalito, an upscale community in the Bay Area canceled its annual art festival when its location conflicted with the proposed place to relocate the homeless population that is currently living on the city’s waterfront. Los Angeles is considering moving forward with establishing a government-funded tent encampment.
Nationally, here’s how The New York Times summed it up in March of this year.
“Homelessness in the United States rose for the fourth straight year, with about 580,000 people living on the streets or in temporary shelter at the start of 2020, according to an annual nationwide survey that was completed before the pandemic.
But the report, which was released on Thursday, almost certainly underestimates the spread, depth and urgency of the crisis, and not by a little, federal officials warned.
Beyond the myriad factors that leave people on streets, expiring COVID-19 moratoriums on evictions mean that millions may soon find themselves without housing.
For decades, Christian ministries have served food and offered temporary housing to people experiencing homelessness. Whose needs have these organizations traditionally met? And how successful have they been?
John Ashmen has served as the CEO of Citygate Network since 2007, previously known as the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions and is the author of Invisible Neighbors. Before he went to what’s now Citygate, he served in the COO role of the Christian Camp and Conference Association.
Ashmen joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen to talk about why homelessness is getting worse, why Christians don’t always agree on the solutions, and what it means for the church to love its neighbor when trying to consider what is best for those on the street, local businesses, and the safety of all.
There seems to be the perception that the issue of homelessness has worsened in nearly every American city; is that true? What have been some of the biggest changes about the size of the homeless population in recent years?
John Ashmen: Well, the numbers are increasing, and the reporting of the numbers is the thing that’s always suspect. It used to be that the numbers were in the 600,000 range, as far as HUD (The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) was reporting with their annual point-in-time counts. And then it dropped to the low 600,000, then the high 500,000, but they were always changing the definition of “homeless,” which made it very difficult to really get your arms around it. But with the recent point-in-time counts, you just can’t deny that something is increasing when you try to navigate through the city.
At Citygate Network, we generally say there are about a million people who are out there. And we say that because so many other agencies come up with different numbers. While HUD was saying we have 550,000 homeless people, the Department of Education was saying, we have almost two million homeless students in American.
How has Citygate traditionally defined homelessness in comparison to the government?
John Ashmen: We’ve said that if you don’t have your own safe place to return to, night after night, then you would be homeless. The government at one point would have probably said that but they’ve added new nuances, so if you’re living doubled up, you’re not homeless. Or if you’ve stayed in a hotel two nights in the last two weeks or something like that, you’re not homeless.
I think if you don’t have that place that you can call your own—whether you’re paying rent or you’re paying a mortgage or it’s paid off—you’re probably in a situation where you’re homeless.
It’s clear there are visible versus possibly invisible situations of homelessness, as some families may double up or have social safety nets while others make use of shelters or live out in public spaces. Do we see those numbers going up and down together based on our national economy? Or are there roots in different issues?
John Ashmen: There are just so many things that cause homelessness. And you just have to look at the situation at the time. Of course, COVID turned everything on its head in many respects.
There are about 320 organizations across North America that are part of Citygate Network, and all of them used to be pretty much at full capacity. (And in most US cities, one of our member organizations is the largest homeless services provider, and in some cities, it’s the only homeless services provider.) And then we got COVID-19 and we started getting people coming in, who were released from prisons and saying, “There’s no place for me to go.” And if you’re the only game in town, you would take those folks in.
And then we had people who would show up and saying, “There’s no food in the house because there’s no paycheck.” And then you had people who were sleeping rough, outdoors and in uncomfortable areas, and they’re saying “It’s just too dangerous out here. And we think it’s going to be safer in the mission,” and so they would come. And so that combination of things disrupted what would be the normal flow of understanding of who’s homeless and where they’re staying.
And we’re just now trying to look at the numbers that are coming in to get an idea of if we’re heading back to what would be the normal patterns.
Did local government put in ordinances that capped the number of people that could stay in homeless shelters during COVID lockdown, or did the people who often stay at these shelters end up deciding that they did not feel comfortable staying in them?
John Ashmen: It was a little bit of both. But we did have numbers that we looked at. I was actually on the US Interagency Council on Homelessness COVID-19 Task Force starting in early April of 2020, and looking at the numbers coming in, we felt we had to do two things: save lives and protect the hospital systems. And the reason we said protect the hospital system was that if a homeless shelter were to go hot—meaning everybody there got COVID-19—there were not enough hospital beds in even large cities to handle that.
So the collaboration that took place in cities was wonderful. Ministries that probably didn’t do a whole lot of talking to one another started sharing resources, started talking, and then we started working with health departments and in some cities, places like the convention center, a sporting arena, or different hotels were used to take in different groups so that they could be spread out and be isolated according to the CDC guidelines.
A lot of groups formally have been pretty focused on the urban, especially center city, communities. But the suburbs have been changing and becoming more diverse, and there’s been a lot more economic diversity as well. Has homelessness been shifting to more of a suburban issue?
John Ashmen: Homelessness used to be concentrated in the urban areas, probably in the roughest locations. So when you look at some of these missions that have been around for years, they started in areas where people were—down in the stockyards or down the railyards, by the docks, or whatever. And of course, the people who were homeless at the time would come out and they would panhandle in the urban areas because that’s where passersby would be.
But what we have seen over the last decade is this seeping into suburbia now. And there are multiple reasons. Some cities have wanted to close the missions or move them out further from the center city because we’re losing tourist business or losing convention business. And so they’ll relocate service providers when they relocate them.
Another thing is opioid addictions. Before, drug addiction and being out on your own on the street used to be something that you’d only see downtown. Now we have a younger set of homeless youth that are in suburbia.
And so the whole complexion of this is changing, both in location and the people who were affected.
Let’s talk more about the changing complexion of homelessness. What are some of the other reasons and conditions that folks who are experiencing homelessness end up falling into? What are the different types of reasons—whether they’re individual or systemic—that these groups are often in?
John Ashmen: The reasons that people experience homelessness are just myriad. You got family dysfunction. You have a lack of education—that’s where you get your generational homelessness. You have people aging out of the foster care system; at some point, as many as 40% of the people who age out end up homeless.
You have LGBTQ youth who are either asked to leave their home because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or they just run away from home and end up homeless—as many as 60-70% of homeless youth are in the category of LGBTQ.
You have the legalization of marijuana; that has really affected a lot of cities and states where that’s now legal. I mentioned the opioids before, you have human trafficking victims, you have individuals with post-traumatic stress disorders. The list goes on and on.
And then you also have folks out there who with all the government services out there, they see homelessness as a pretty easy life. “I can sleep where I want, I can get meals in multiple locations, I can get shoes here, I can go over here on Tuesdays and get medical care and dental care is available here…” And that population seems to be growing in a lot of cities, particularly in places where it’s warm and you don’t have to worry about freezing to death at night.
Has there also been an overall increase in the homeless population in places where it’s just very unaffordable to find a place to live?
John Ashmen: Yes, of course. When housing costs are out of sight that puts people on the street as well. And while there’s a lot of government programs to put people in affordable housing; it’s hard.
For example, they have 66,000 homeless people in Los Angeles right now, and they’ve been raising money for years to build homes. But the number of houses that they have finished is just a fraction of what they need, and they just can’t catch up with it. And then there’s a lot of beard-stroking wondering, “where’s all our money going?”
And the money that’s being spent there is going to developers, it’s going to study committees, it’s going to all of these places that that frankly is making people rich on this homeless problem that we have. And they haven’t solved the problem.
Christian engagement on homelessness tends to be volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters. But do Christians need to address this more as a policy issue? Or what’s the unique thing that Christians can contribute on the solution side?
John Ashmen: I think Christians need to be very vocal and get involved in politics. That’s the first thing. If we’re going to solve this, we have to change a lot of these lax laws that are allowing people to remain homeless and be comfortable.
Interestingly, a lot of our organizations are saying, we are here to help people who want to be served. We’re not here to do disaster relief. And so they have concentrated all their efforts on life recovery programs—life transformation, we call it. And that is something that we’re starting to wonder if it’s going to be a trend.
When we did our last count of the number of beds that are out there in missions and similar ministries that are part of the city network, the number of emergency shelter beds had declined, and the number of program beds had increased. And so that is letting us know that life transformation is the reason we’re there. We’re not there to provide these services over and over and over again, without an exit strategy for the people. You have to have an exit strategy.
So what can Christians do? They certainly can get involved in government and help with these lax laws that I mentioned. You want to make sure that people are treated humanely and with dignity, but at the same time, not allowed to live like this because it’s comfortable for them in the stage of life they’re at.
And this is not to discount the people out there who have a mental illness. The recent numbers show about 78% of the people who are homeless on the West Coast had some form of mental illness. There have to be mental health assessments done, and many of our missions have put mental health clinics in their buildings these days.
The other thing that I tell pastors to do is to stop feeding people in the park. I think there’s a lot of people who misinterpret Matthew 25:31-46 as a license to feed everybody. While it might be an amazing experience for the youth group, it doesn’t do a thing for the people in the park. And as Dr. Robert Marbut, who was the former homelessness czar said, “Nobody ever got out of homelessness with a meal.” A meal keeps them alive, but you have to have an exit strategy. You have to have programs that are making a difference.
When I think of passing more laws to make it harder for me to be homeless, my initial reaction is, how does it help to criminalize something like this? Doesn’t it just put more people in the criminal justice system? Do we know if these policies that essentially make it illegal to sleep on the streets are having the effect that they’re purporting to do?
John Ashmen: Well, what’s missing here is a sense of responsibility. Because of our desire to be humane, we have taken away any sense of responsibility from people who are on the street. Yes, there’s mental illness and there are addictions that have to be treated, but if you don’t have a sense of responsibility and you don’t feel some sort of pain from living this lifestyle, then we’re going to see more and more people there.
We don’t want people arrested and thrown in jail, but we do want ordinances that funnel people toward those places where services can be provided. And unless you have wraparound services and you have programs that help people with their condition in life and getting them to understand their role in society, you’re going to just see more and more folks on the streets like we’ve been seeing.
I would point to some of the statistics that were put out by the homelessness czar Dr. Robert Marbut and when you look at unsheltered homeless, plus those in emergency shelter beds and those in transitional housing, rapid rehousing, and even those in permanent supportive housing, the numbers were going down for homelessness until the government said, “We’re going to cease services.” “We’re not going to mandate services that anybody homeless to go to see an eviction recovery counselor or a caseworker. And we’ll just say the solution is housing first, and we’ll put you in a house.”
Well, when that happened, the unsheltered homeless saw a 20.5% increase nationally, and that across the board, that still showed an increase in homelessness of 15.6%. And so the absence of required services has been something that has hurt the situation. And we’re going to continue to see more people on the streets unless there are some requirements, some sense of responsibility.
And that does involve some laws then so be it.
Is that a fair assumption that there are people just out on the street because even if they are working a job, they legitimately just can’t afford to live in someplace like Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco?
John Ashmen: Absolutely. And just to be very clear, the lack of affordable housing is a very significant reason that goes with all of those other reasons that I gave earlier. You have people who are working who are homeless—they sleep in their cars or vans, and we talked about doubling up. So that is a problem.
And solutions are being tried—the solution of tiny home communities—that are making a difference. And that certainly is a much better solution than encampments or tents.
Those encampments have to be dismantled. And the reason is that they have their own subculture, and the drugs, the prostitution, the health issues, and the fighting that goes on—there’s so many laws being broken there. So that is not a solution.
Morgan Lee: I think what you’re saying is that homeless communities have a subculture that’s in some ways is detached from employment or so forth, and there need to be stronger incentives to help folks to reintegrate into our larger culture and community.
And we need to be creating stronger incentives for that to happen. Not for people who are necessarily just sleeping on the streets because they are unable to afford a place to live.
Can you share more about the gospel mission model? And how has that model changed over the last few years?
John Ashmen: Our missions are gospel rescue missions with a specific focus of having the gospel being a new starting point [for people experiencing homelessness]. We believe that the Bible says life comes with a reset button. In 2 Corinthians, it says, “if any person be in Christ, they are a new creation; old things are passed away, everything can become new.” And we see this day after day in our 300-plus organizations where folks are deciding to start again. They’re accepting the gospel as being available specifically for them, and they trust Jesus and move forward with a new perspective on life.
And that’s not going to change in what we do. It hasn’t changed in the 100-plus years that Citygate Network—including in its other names—has been around. And we continue to provide those services from a gospel perspective.
Rescue is also still there. It really never leaves. Rescue is the vestibule, that’s what gets people in. People have to come in because they have this need in their life. And they come in the mission and see there are other alternatives. So, how is it changing? The missions are now taking a look at how they can help people see that there’s a difference between what they’re experiencing and what they could experience. We work to get them back into their homes.
Many organizations have done services for the hungry, homeless, abused, and addicted people, but there’s no exit strategy. And so the Citygate Network of today is always thinking, “what is the exit strategy?”
We put eight “S” words together to say, this is what life transformation looks like. The first “S” is “saved”—and right away, I need to say, yes, there are some people who come to a mission and there’s a chapel service and they make a change in their life and they start with that idea of being really engaged with the gospel. But when we use the word “saved” in these eight “S’s” we mean, we saved the life. We saved them from overdosing. We saved them from the control of their pimp. We saved them because we’ve provided good nutrition, particularly when it comes to young children whose brain and body development might not be where it needs to be because they’re homeless and not getting good food.
The second “S” is “sober”—no longer controlled by stimulants or depressants. After sober comes “stable,” that’s the mental health and physical health. Many of our organizations have medical respite care. And then after that comes “schooled.” Schooled could mean finishing your high school degree, it could be in social skills, it could be computer skills—it’s enough education to be competitive out there.
After that comes “skilled.” Skilled it’s not just helping people get a job, but helping them understand that they could have a career in a particular area, whether it be culinary arts or tire and wheel balancing or carpentry or call center training, After skilled comes “secure,” which means you’re getting a paycheck and you’re learning how to manage your money.
After that is “settled.” It’s your own safe place to return to every night, maybe even taking in your relatives who have been on the street as well. And then the last “S” is “serving.” And that means giving back to the community.
Saved, sober, stable, schooled, skilled, secure, settled, and serving. That’s what missions are about these days. And some city missions say, “God, didn’t call me to do all of these.” And we’re saying, “Well, maybe he’s called you to do the first three. Or maybe you’re just doing housing, but you need to be partnering with other organizations that are doing the other things.”
We can’t be siloed anymore. We have to be collaborative if we’re going to see ministry work in the days ahead, particularly when it comes to homelessness.
Ted Olsen: Siloed is the “S” not to do.
Are these “S’s” criteria that the gospel missions measure themselves and have the numbers?
John Ashmen: We’re starting to, and I’m proud to say that there are many of our members who are getting on board and we’re starting to measure outcomes.
Christians have been experts at measuring outputs, whether it be in a church or Sunday school—how many buses did we have? How many children into Sunday school? How many people decided to trust Christ in church? We’ve done it for years.
Outputs measure needs. Outcomes measure success.
So we’re now starting to measure how many people made a decision for Christ and are still living in Christian community two years later? How many people went through an addiction recovery program and are clean and sober two years later? How many people were placed in a house and are still living there 18 months later? How many people who were put in a job and trained for that job are still employed years later?
And those are a little bit harder to get because it’s not just a point in time, you have to follow people. And follow-up has always been the difficult part of any ministry. But it has to be done because we need to see these results, and these results are going to be the evidence we need to say there’s an evidence-based solution to our homeless problem.
When we feel that prompting that we should do something about the homeless, what is it that the average Christian should have as their initial follow-up?
John Ashmen: Most people think back toward traditional assistance, which has to do with writing a check—and those are definitely needed because all 320 of our member organizations don’t take government funds, or don’t take them if it inhibits what they can teach and preach. And so they are dependent on those checks.
But the other way that most people have always been involved is with feeding, and it usually pops into their minds sometime around Thanksgiving or the Christmas holidays. And that’s wonderful, missions definitely need volunteers—and they need them not just on Thanksgiving—but what we have to do is look at creative ways we can partner with places.
How about a Pastor of Street Ministries at a church? We have a pastor of missions, we have a pastor of youth, we have a pastor of music, and so on, but if we really are understanding what Jesus said about the poor and how we need to engage, why aren’t churches having pastor of homeless ministries as prominently displayed?
There are chances for people to engage. I mentioned chapel services, that’s how missions used to be. A lot of missions still do chapel services, maybe not as often as they used to be, but some of them have conversation specialists. So you go in and you eat with the people who are homeless, you look across the table, you look into their eyes, you get to know their name and their story, and then you get to tell your story and you can have engagement that way. That’s a great way to minister. And then you can bring some of these people back to your church. And so that’s a connection that a lot of people sometimes overlook.
And then there are many ways to partner with missions in the education area too. There just needs to be this partnership and not the silos. Unfortunately, there are a lot of churches who think we can handle this ourselves, but I don’t know if too many churches that know what to do with somebody who’s been addicted to crack for 12 years.