On Friday Aug 28th I stood outside the ECM office in downtown Boston and watched as a hearse with Senator Ted Kennedy’s body passed us by. As the motorcade came down Tremont Street one of the homeless men who spends much of his time on the Common and in the general area of St. Paul’s Cathedral stood along with me and the hundreds of others, in respectful quiet for Kennedy. I couldn’t help but think how glad Kennedy would have been to see this man, who has suffered greatly in his life, standing there with others who are privileged; employed and housed, sending him off and saying thank you.

No matter what your political beliefs or your feelings about the Kennedy clan, we can all agree that Ted Kennedy did not live his life sitting down, he stood up and spoke out when he felt others needed his support and backing. Episcopal churches and many other faith communities across the state are doing just this by engaging in the work to end homelessness in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts, along with many other states is guilty of letting the crisis of homelessness overwhelm us into acceptance. As a state we have seen a HUGE increase in this crisis from the early 80’s when we only had a few emergency shelters, to today when we have over 90 shelters that are all full to capacity every night and over 1,000 people living in motels. We have watched the problem grow and instead of looking at the root causes and solutions, the state reacted with emergency supports and short term answers which resulted in an expanded shelter system costing the state over $80 million dollars a year, and a dying affordable housing program.

BUT this is all changing. In the last 3 years a movement to shift away from this shelter system and towards a system of prevention and long term solutions (like housing) has begun. From the Patrick administration to non-profit organizations to the foundation and funding community, the energy has changed.

We all agree that homelessness is a community crisis that we can abolish if we all stand up, speak out, and work together.

So many parishes run programs, operate facilities and provide volunteers to organizations across the state. Because of this we know it is essential for the faith community to be at the table as the state and organizations transition from a reliance on shelter to a new approach.

When talking to members of the faith community I have often been asked “How do we fit into this change? We want to help but in what way?”

The faith community is historically known to support essential emergency programs, like soup kitchens, food pantries, etc… The first step towards change is to think differently about how you operate your program. If you are offering a meal to a person who is on the brink of homelessness, you are providing them not only with a hot supper, but with the knowledge that they do not have to purchase that food, thus you have become a homeless prevention program as that person can now use that money to pay other bills. The same can be said for a food pantry or a free clothing shop. If you provide a meal to an individual who recently moved back into housing, whether recently released from incarceration or from a drug abuse program, in addition to the meal you are providing a community space and support for that person, helping stabilize him/her in their new environment.

Second, we need to ensure that the programs we operate are not stand alone, but part of a larger community wide support system for those in need. The key is to link up to other organizations and services happening in your area so that you are part of this community wide collaboration.

Recently ECM partnered with two other organizations to award faith based initiatives in 7 regions across the state. The goal of these grants is to ensure that the faith community is engaged in the work to end homelessness and that they are empowered to look at new ways to run their programs and offer resources to those in need.

If you are interested in learning how you can engage with the work happening in your community please email kcsimons@diomass.org or to learn more about the movement to end homelessness visit the state’s website for the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness.

As members of the Episcopal Church we are called to help our neighbors and to engage in our community. We can help end this crisis, together.