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Guest column: Religious organizations are helping to improve local lives

Finish high school, get a job and wait to get married.

That’s the advice from Ben Carson, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, on how young people can avoid poverty.

Carson’s assertion is derived from research that indeed shows overwhelming numbers of people in their 20’s join the middle class by following these steps.

Sadly, such advice comes too late for too many in Jacksonville who are already in poverty, homeless, addicted to drugs or suffering from domestic violence — or those who grew up in horrific conditions as children.

But there is now hard evidence that shows that, yes, there is a compassionate side of modern urban America.


Research released last month from Baylor University quantifies the impact of faith-based organizations in Jacksonville and elsewhere.

Based on data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development — or HUD — researchers at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion found that 52 percent of all emergency shelter beds in Jacksonville are provided by faith-based groups, such as the City Rescue Mission, Salvation Army and the Trinity Rescue Mission.

These organizations and similar ones throughout the country rely mostly on private donations. And they focus on helping individuals attain self-sufficiency and measure their results.

HUD’s ability to measure personal outcomes in billion dollar programs is virtually nonexistent; the agency is simply not set up to do that.

But faith-based organizations can help government succeed in fighting poverty and homelessness.

To its credit, HUD established local coordinating organizations around the country bringing together local government, faith-based groups, secular non-profits and charities.

In theory, this will enable government and the private sector to coordinate services and maximize resources.

The reality is often different, however.

Local coordinating organizations, operating under HUD rules, have become widely seen throughout the country as grant-compliance seminars, distributing paperwork on what organizations must do to receive government funding.

In his Senate confirmation hearings, Carson repeatedly talked about taking a more “holistic” approach.

Achieving that vision will happen locally, where the real work of HUD takes place.

ending the dependency culture

For example, Salvation Army’s Pathway for Hope initiative addresses the challenges of inter-generational poverty, according to an organization official quoted in the Baylor report.

Colleen Reardon, social services director for the Northeast Florida Salvation Army, pointed out that federally funded programs have a tendency to emphasize eligibility requirements and get bogged down in paperwork.

“I think that there is an emotional and spiritual component to breaking these generational cycles of poverty that is lacking in many publicly funded social service programs,” Reardon said in the Baylor report.

Religious organizations play a major role in ending the dependence culture often associated with public benefits.

It is religion that helps bind families together so that children can grow up in an environment where finishing high school, getting a job and waiting to get married mean something.

The challenge before all of us is to get government and religious organizations working together locally.

We will then transform lives, go beyond bureaucratic approaches of the past and renew the fight on poverty.

Vann Ellison is president and CEO of St. Matthew’s House, based in Naples, Fla.

It is a nonprofit that works to address poverty, homelessness and substance abuse.