President Trump recently spoke to more than 3,000 faith community leaders at the 65th National Prayer Breakfast. It was his first opportunity to address this important constituency as a group since he became president. The concept of prayer breakfasts started in the 1940s with a Methodist minister who organized these gatherings to drive progress in addressing the needs of the impoverished.
Today, the breakfast serves as an opportunity to remind political leaders of the critical role faith plays in benefiting the common good of our country. And with the founding minister’s original vision of confronting the cycle of poverty in mind, it is an opportune time to examine the footprints communities of faith are leaving on one of our nation’s most pressing epidemics – homelessness.
Throughout history, faith-based organizations have led efforts to alleviate homelessness, now providing support to the nearly 565,000 individuals living on our nation’s streets. But despite their tireless work, there has been little effort to both qualify and quantify the measurable difference they are making in individual lives and for society as a whole.
That is why, as part of a Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion initiative, my team recently spearheaded an academic investigation of this very issue. In our 11-city survey, released on the eve of the National Prayer Breakfast, we delved into the measurable effect of faith-based organizations in addressing homelessness across the nation. What we found was an innate value on par with, and in many cases unmatched by, municipalities, federal and state government, and non-faith community groups. Beyond the routine shelter provided by churches, synagogues, mosques and others, faith-based organizations supplied nearly 60 percent of emergency shelter beds in the cities we surveyed.
Because real impact in the lives of others cannot be measured solely with numbers, we also looked at the nature of the support faith-based organizations deliver to the homeless. This revealed that these organizations are implementing initiatives that help the homeless chart paths toward progress and stability. These programs are tailored to the core causes of homelessness – including poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, addiction, incarceration, health and affordable housing – rather than its symptoms.
We also discovered the tangible benefits these faith-based initiatives provide to the community at large. By addressing homelessness as a pattern and implementing long-term solutions, faith-based organizations are able to reduce the burden on society’s most important institutions – health care, family services, public assistance programs and law enforcement.
Further, helping individuals get back on their feet translates to $8.27 in taxpayer savings for every $1 of government funding. That’s an estimated $119 million in taxpayer savings during the three years following program exit for the communities we surveyed. If one were to extrapolate those numbers across the country, the savings would be incredible. In fact, according to a separate study conducted by Faith Counts, religious organizations spend $9.2 billion on social programs annually to deliver a staggering $1.2 trillion in benefit to the U.S. economy.
A significant body of empirical evidence confirms that faith and faith-motivated individuals and organizations play a significant role in reducing crime and delinquency, helping addicts to stay sober, reforming prisoners and helping ex-prisoners remain crime free. In spite of this fact, federal agencies tasked with facing these difficult social problems rarely acknowledge the contributions of faith-based organizations in making a positive difference. This is unfortunate because faith-based organizations are such willing and capable allies and partners of government and other community-based groups in confronting serious social problems like homelessness.
The National Prayer Breakfast comes and goes, but the conversations it sparks need to continue all year long. Coming together to recognize the lives touched by faith-based organizations must be an integral part of the ongoing discussion with our new president and Congress. It is critical to ensuring ongoing policy support for the faith-based organizations that reside on the frontlines of the war on homelessness.
Dr. Byron Johnson is a distinguished professor of Social Sciences and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.