Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Ministry of Hope

Last night marked the last in this round of UML-community discussions led by Prof. Bill Berkowitz and his Community Social Psychology grad students. The guest speaker was Diane Waddell from the Living Waters Ministry of Hope, now located on West Adams Street. There were also about a dozen or so homeless Lowellians, mostly residents of the Transitional Living Center on Middlesex, and all associated with Living Waters.

From the beginning, Ms. Waddell explained that Living Waters was about helping to meet people's basic needs, and that it was "a hand up, not a hand out." A drop-in center that depends on volunteers, financial contributions, and help from local churches, Living Waters' biggest challenge is fundraising. Simply put, they need more money to meet more needs -- tents, blankets, socks, shirts, and eventually an expanded building.

Several homeless residents explained their situations, to include Kevin, a former homeowner who, after losing his house, was arrested for sleeping outdoors in a public place; the arrest then made it even harder for him to find a job that could help reverse his fortune. Others talked about the stigma they face when filling out job applications and indicating their housing status or listing their address as "189 Middlesex."

The biggest commonality I saw here from the last meeting was that the best ideas were practical and offered something to would-be donors. Much like a community group that could increase membership by appealing to their neighbors' self-interest, a non-profit group looking to raise more funds ought to think along the same lines.

Here were three such ideas:

(1) For fundraising, Steve Hattan suggested that Living Waters raise money by offering something back. Two examples he cited were car washes and snow shoveling, and the advice is universal -- whether it's a Little League, a local Fire Department, or a ministry serving the homeless, you're going to find a much more willing donor pool when you're offering a service or something else of value. People are naturally skeptical, as they should be, everytime sometime comes to them with an open palm asking for money. This seemed to mesh well with something said by Allegra Williams from the Tent City Coalition ( about charity versus empowerment. It seems like this is one of those cases where you can come from the Right (Hey! We shouldn't just write blank checks all day) or from the Left (Hey! We shouldn't patronize people who need a hand up with money-for-nothing) and find some middle ground. Another example Mr. Hattan brought up later on was the idea of using something like a thrift store to raise money and teach skills; as it turns out, Ms. Waddell has been planning this for some time, but needs to expand the current Living Waters structure to be able to do it.

(2) Right next to Mr. Hattan was Paul Marion (UML Community Outreach), who talked about ways that homeless advocacy organizations might be able to create "a different model for providing services." He talked about using community partnerships (I'm thinking David Brooks may have been his muse here) to bring about things like contract work and even small businesses. Tapping into resources like the MBA program, local banks working via the Community Reinvestment Act, and other local contractors would put together the right mix of business know-how, access to capital, and labor demand with people willing to work in order to improve their lot in life. As long as it's done in a way that doesn't exploit the homeless (and this could be done with simple verifications by program directors), using an available but vastly under-utilized source of labor and talent to work throughout the city seems pretty hard to argue against. It also goes a long way beyond just giving someone the proverbial fish, who will then need another tomorrow, and the next day...

(3) Right next to Mr. Marion, in turn, was Jay Mason, a local architect who had firsthand knowledge of the Associated Grantmakers of Boston, a clearinghouse of fund providers. Associated Grantmakers puts on periodic two-hour seminars on how to use the existing grant application system to bring more money to non-profit organizations.

Hearing all these ideas gave me an idea -- someone with business knowledge, a big heart, and a lot of time on his hands could do wonders for the world -- or even just the community, by working as a pro bono consultant for the many non-profit groups who could use the help. Listening to all the groups that presented during Prof. Berkowitz's series left me with no doubt about the goodness of their leaders' motives or the causes themselves. It did show me, however, that a lot of these groups could stand to greatly benefit with more input from people with business and marketing knowledge. Already cash-strapped, I don't think they could shell out the big bucks for the whizbang consulting firms from Boston, but I do think it'd be a huge help if them if they could seek out more sessions like these to get constructive feedback about how to improve their publicity and finances.

Before the meeting ended, Ms. Williams put in a mention for the Homeless Benefit Concert to be held Saturday, 23 May from 7-10 p.m. at the Revolving Museum ($10/door). The proceeds from this concert will fund the installation of washers, dryers, and showers at the shelter. After Mr. Hattan's point and the ones that followed, the timing of the plug was apropos -- the Tent City Coalition is raising money by offering something valuable to the community in the form of a downtown concert.

For the time being, that spells the end of the UML-community discussions for this class, though I'm told they may pick up next academic year. I've had a great time attending these and writing about them afterwards. If you didn't see Kathleen Marcin's quote in the related Sun article from two Sundays ago, one of the best things about these sessions is that they put people from a lot of backgrounds, neighborhoods, etc. into one common place. From there, ideas naturally flow, social capital develops, and the community grows stronger.

As I know I've said before, it's been particularly good to see these things steered towards actual, tangible action steps that will yield results. I thought the UML students were a tough crowd, but in a good way; the more vocal ones in particular made what I hope were the strongest impressions on the presenters to be self-critical in the way they solve their problems.

One last thought before I wrap up: It was also great to see Council candidates Paul Belley and Ryan Berard attend these sessions. Time and again, there were laments from students and presenters about non-responsiveness from local government; having the ear of two potential future members of that government can only have helped those causes. The best thing those advocates can do, I believe, is make their causes known to those who might represent them, register, vote, and then hold those leaders accountable for the next two years.

The right to complain about your government is guaranteed by the First Amendment, of course, but it seems like you lose a little bit of your moral high ground to do so when you don't even bother to vote.

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