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Sunday, January 30, 2005

David

Leaning back in his chair, as we waited for one of our community meal celebrations to begin last Thursday, David began to open up. I was amazed at all the information that he freely volunteered to me and two or three others who stood around.

"I come here to keep my morality," he said. "I make the Overcomers meetings on Tuesdays. I go over to Smokey's too. It all helps to keep me in line."

David's complete story is not clear to me. Is any life story ever really clear? But, I know the basics without even asking.

My friend has had a fairly tough life. Mistakes. Disappointments from others and from himself. Somewhere in the mix you'll find alcohol and drug abuse, broken primary relationships, possibly some trouble with the law. Loneliness. Depression. Homelessness. At times, deep sadness.

Like so many other friends of mine, David walked into our place one day right off the streets. He needed food. He needed something to do. He needed to feel a part of something. He needed purpose. He needed hope.

Today he is one of our most trusted and valued volunteers. Loading and unloading trucks, helping people in trouble, generally supporting our daily operations by doing whatever he is asked to do and more.

People like David soon feel as if they own the place around here. That is always a very good sign.

A couple of months ago on a particularly busy day, I pulled into the parking lot behind the building. I managed to park with a front tire a bit over a yellow line. David approached me as I got out of the car.

"Sir, you'll need to try that again. As you can see, we are very busy today and parking is limited. No one gets more than one space. Thanks a lot!" he grinned, as he gave me directions.

"Yep, I don't know what I would do without this place," David continued talking to us before our meal. We chimed back that the place needed him and that he was a huge help to so many people every day.

"I know what it feels like to not want to get out of bed. Sometimes I slip back into that feeling. This place gets me up and keeps me going. I don't want to go back to that old way, I really don't," he reflected, now brushing away tears.

"I need this place and the people who are here. It is hard being all alone."

We all assured him he wasn't alone and that we needed exactly the same things that he needed.

David and friends like him remind me about the fragile and amazing nature of the human soul and of the absolute necessity of genuine community.

I'm thankful I know David. His life matters. Everyone matters.

Why is that so easy to forget?


Saturday, January 29, 2005

A City of Contradiction

Seven hours after the completion of the census to count the homeless in Dallas last Monday evening, Texas Department of Transportation officials literally scooped up several homeless campgrounds under bridges and overpasses along Interstate 45.

Ironically, only hours before city census takers passed out new blankets and coats to homeless Dallasites. Many of those helpful gifts were lost in the "homeless clean up."

WFAA TV--Channel 8 quoted Steve Fitzpatrick, a homeless citizen of Dallas, who observed, "People bring us clothes, blankets and things to stay warm. Now the police are going to take it all and throw it in the trash" (Tuesday, January 25, 2005).

You got it, Steve. Officials filled five dump trucks full of "housing," clothing and other belongings in the clean up.

Officials were unapologetic. The Department of Transportation enforces a "no tolerance" policy when it comes to loitering on state property.

I can understand that. The highway right-of-way is no place for people to live. And TxDOT's mission is not housing or social services.

But, what a whopper of a contradiction for a city! We count you one day. We disrupt your life completely the next.

Dallas remains one of the most contradictory cities in the nation.

Apparent concern for the homeless, but no real action.

Churches everywhere, but no movement toward a better community for everyone.

Charity among our community boasting points in every Chamber of Commerce fact sheet. Justice in short supply.

Wealth, opulent luxury. Poverty, crushing poverty.

People without homes have to go somewhere. Shelters are not a long-term solution. Ever slept in one? Think about it.

Dallas needs homes for the homeless. Dallas needs homes now.

Where's the leadership, where's the political and spiritual will to get it done?









Thursday, January 27, 2005

Best Public Health Strategy in the World? Don't Make Me Laugh!

There was a time when Texans woke up every morning thanking God for Mississippi and Alabama when it came to health and human services. Those days are long gone!

Even though I am in a position to see our ugly reality on a daily basis, I must admit the story in The Dallas Morning News on Thursday, January 20, 2005, blew me away one more time. Will I ever learn?

You couldn't miss reporter Robert T. Garrett's headline:

"Children's insurance program forfeits millions."

Uh, oh! Here we go again.

Texas gave up $104.6 million, a bit over one third of the funding assigned to the state by the U. S. Department of Health and Human services for use in its Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) during 2002.

No doubt, you have read about CHIP over the past year or so. The legislature and governor decided to scale the program back in order to help balance the state's budget during its last session.

Funding from Washington is awarded as matching funds. If a state does not spend enough to receive the 3 to 1 match--that is almost three federal dollars for every one state dollar spent--it relinquishes its funding.

In other words, by saving something over $30 million, Texas lost $104,000,000.

Sadly, this is not the first loss for Texas. Since CHIP began just a few years ago, Texas has surrendered almost $772 million in funds for the children's insurance product.

Of course, the politicians immediately began blaming one another for the failure. Governor Perry blamed Senator Hutchison. Senator Hutchison blamed Governor Perry.

Ho hum. What's new there? Well, I guess it is new for two Republicans to square off, but then maybe not with Democrats on the verge of extinction in the state!

Among the real losers are the children of Texas and the overall status of our public health.

Wonder where that "lost funding" went--funding that hard working Texans sent to Washington when they paid their tax bills?

The funds were redistributed to states who had spent their entire allotment.

A lesson my dad taught me years ago comes to mind just here. Something about having to spend money to make money.

Anybody else ready for the emergence of real leaders?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

"Best Health Care System in the World"--Be Mighty Careful What You Claim!

How many times have you heard it?

The conversation centers on health care, insurance and the crisis of public health in the United States.

Always, yes, always, during the first couple of minutes of discussion, someone offers the evaluation that almost always shuts down any creative thinking,

"Yes, but the United States has the best health care system in the world."


Oh, really? Why in the world are we so sure about that? And for whom is it the best?

Dr. Barbara Starfield, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, published an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (summer 2000) reporting that "the U. S. population does not have anywhere near the best health in the world. . . .Of 13 countries in a recent comparison, the United States ranks an average of 12th (second from the bottom) for 16 available health indicators."


Noting that 40 million Americans (now closer to 45 million) were then without health insurance, the good doctor went on to say, "U. S. children are particularly disadvantaged. But even the relatively advantaged position of elderly persons in the United States is slipping. The U. S. relative position for life expectancy in the oldest age group was better in the 1980's than in the 1990's."

In a follow-up interview with New York Times reporter, Bob Herbert (June 28, 2004), Dr. Starfield noted that four years later the situation was only worse.

What is clear and true is simple to see: we have the most expensive health care system in the world that produces very little in the way of return on investment on a per capita basis in positive public health outcomes.

For all our spending--currently about 15% of the gross national product annually-- we certainly do not enjoy the best health in the world.

What we do have is a very inequitable and unjust system.

If you can pay, you get some of the best care in the world. Maybe that is what people mean who claim so much for the quality of our system in this country.

The often brutal corrollary is simple: If you can't pay or if you are uninsured, you find yourself in a world of hurt, literally. No claims for the best system in the world will be heard from this growing group of Americans.

Then comes the brilliant leadership of State of Texas that forfeits hundreds of millions of federal dollars readily available to bring better health products to the rapidly growing numbers, once at or near the bottom, who are now in a shrinking middle class.

Dollars, by the way, that Texans have paid to Washington in federal taxes. Dollars now at work in New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Florida and many other states.

More on this tomorrow.

For today, be careful what you claim about the quality of overall health care in the U. S.

And don't forget, in this country we still believe in the "overall," don't we?

Please tell me we do.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Place First--A Place to Start?

Pathways to Housing, a New York City and Washington, D.C. non-profit housing organization, offers Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) apartments to homeless people before doing or requiring much else.

Many "authorities" on homelessness are quick to question or doubt their methods, until they do some research.

Between 1993 and 1997, hard research demonstrated that 88% of their clients--all of them extreme cases--remained in the housing Pathways provided, as compared to 47% who went through New York City's treatment system.

Another study funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, randomly assigned 225 mentally ill New Yorkers to either Pathways or a traditional program. After one year, Pathways participants were homeless 3% of the time, compared to 28% of the time for those in the city's system.

Radical vision and delivery this Pathways outfit!

Once identified, a homeless person is placed in decent, clean housing in two weeks.

While offering many traditional medical and psychiatric services and other "wrap around" resources like those we have in abundance here in Dallas (at least as compared to housing units), Pathways does not require anyone to use them to qualify for housing.

Housing comes first.

That is because Pathways' leadership understands that much of the mental illness found on urban streets is created by the street itself.

Lesson to be learned: People were not made to live on the streets of the city.

Founder Sam Tsemberis (pronounced: Tim-bare-is) says it best, "You're curing the housing problem first. You cure the person later."

Beyond the improved situation for the clients, consider the amazing savings in costs to the city. The savings achieved in reduced Emergency Room expenses, prison/jail time, shelters and other services far surpassed the cost to provide a decent room to a person for a year.

In New York City the cost of doing business in the traditional manner per person totals almost $41,000 annually. Pathways spends about $22,000 per person per year with much better outcomes.

Sometimes common sense can save us, if we are willing to step back and reconsider what we are really doing. Those of us in the "poverty industry" need to learn this lesson badly.

"Place first" sounds like something we should try here in Dallas.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Homes: A Cure for Homelessness--Go Figure!

People sleep on the streets, in the parks and behind the buildings of the city because they don't have homes.

The business community in Dallas wants the homeless removed from sight. Bad for business. Bad for property values. Bad for sanitation and the condition of sidewalks and buildings. Bad. Bad. Bad.

Many city leaders and not a few residents believe building a new homeless assistance center will really help address the problem. At least the police will have a place to take the people they find asleep on our sidewalks.

Funny to me. Hardly anyone heard what Tom Dunning, the chair of Mayor Laura Miller's task force on homelessness, really said in his briefing earlier this week. Oh, he finally got around to unveiling the task force recommendation on site selection for the new homeless center.

But first he talked about solutions, real solutions to the challenges posed by people sleeping on the streets. Way to go, Tom! Thankless task and you did it well.

Homes. That's right. That's what Mr. Dunning said. So simple that almost everyone misses it!

People are homeless because they don't have homes. Er, I think that is what the word means!

Dallas needs SROs and lots of them. Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) units--hundreds of them. Relatively small and inexpensive efficiency apartments for currently homeless persons to lease. Places they can consider and call home.

Many homeless Dallasites qualify for various benefits that would allow them to lease apartments like these. From a business standpoint--the best way to approach the problem--SRO development and management works.

Presently Dallas has less than 200 such units. Six thousand homeless. Two hundred homes. Get it?

Developing SROs in downtown areas has worked in every major urban center where they have been attempted. Cities that address the need for homes find that they don't need to worry about "getting the homeless out of downtown." Once in homes, these folks turn into neighbors! Nice transition.

Without homes we cannot possibly make a dent in the real issues of homelessness.

Shelters are not the answer. Shelters are to homelessness what food pantries are to chronic underemployment and hunger. They simply are not enough.

We must have the courage, vision and good sense to take the next step and offer homes to those who do not have them.

In coming posts we will discuss the "place first" movement that tells us when people take possession of spaces they can control and consider their own, many of the chronic problems associated with homelessness dissipate quickly.

Homes--that's the ticket!

Friday, January 21, 2005

"Home"--Just What's Needed

Wednesday Wal Mart opened one of their Neighborhood Market stores on Hall Street just across Central Expressway from our technology center. About six weeks before the opening, members of their human resources team set up an employment center in our building.

The results were encouraging. Forty-seven of our people from the neighborhood found jobs!

At the grand opening it was really fun walking around the new store sharing "high fives" with people we knew from our training efforts.

The Dallas Morning News picked up the story and ran an article on page one of today's Metro section. As a result, Channels 5 and 8 called. Channel 5 did a remote broadcast yesterday evening from our tech center--The CyberSpot.

Funny how things play out. Sometimes the timing seems uncanny.

Let me explain. Bear with me.

Day before yesterday the Mayor's Task Force on Homelessness provided an official briefing to the Dallas City Council. The mission of this select group of citizens was to recommend a site for the city's new homeless assistance center. I was there for the briefing.

Interestingly enough, the report, presented by chairman Tom Dunning, focused on a topic unrelated to the new center. The task force reported that to effectively address homelessness the city needed to produce a large number of single resident occupancy apartments (SROs) for the homeless population (more on this subject in future posts).

Now back to Channel 5.

Ramona Logan, the reporter on the story, connected the news story dots for the day and asked me how our employment training program might affect the homeless population and the problems of homelessness in general.

My reply dealt almost completely with housing.

It is really not rocket science. Everyone who can work needs a job.

But a job is not enough.

Everyone needs a decent, affordable place in which to live. A place where the days end. A place where the days begin.

A space to "own," if not literally, then spiritually, personally, emotionally.

Everyone needs a place to call home.

I am so glad when our neighbors find work.

But, we can't afford to rest until they all find home as well.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Inauguration Day in the USA

I hate to break it to you, but things are not getting better for the urban poor.

Everyday brings me some new and compelling evidence of this harsh reality. You can see it everywhere in the city if you pay attention to poor folks.

Ironically, we are getting better at responding to the growing pain. But what sort of person could find even a shred of comfort in that assessment?

We do medicine where I work. Since 1990, we have offered some level of medical outreach to the poor who live around us. This past year was our best ever in terms of what we delivered.

Unfortunately, our hard statistics tell an even harder story about the health of the poor in inner city Dallas. Services are scarce and growing scarcer. Health continues to decline.

In 2003, we cared for 2,962 patients. During 2004, that number almost doubled to a total of 5,758.

One of our target disease sets is diabetes. During 2003, we treated 220 diabetic patients. This past year we provided a medical home for 564 people in their chronic battle with the all to common malady. Diabetes runs at epidemic proportions here, as do hyper-tension, cardiovascular disease, asthma and depression.

Our dental practice--poor people between 21 and 65 have little or no access to dental care--grew from 571 patients in 2003 to 822 in 2004.

Then there are the children. We don't treat many little ones. Most of them have some access to public health services--though with substantial cuts to the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) the need among kids is growing. Our practice reflects the need trend. We provided a consistent medical presence for 252 children last year as compared to 123 in 2003.

I could go on, but I'll spare you. Except to say, we operate a relatively small medical clinic.

I guess my point here has to do with the state of the nation's health, but even more important to me is the state of our "national heart."

As you take in the inaugural events of this special day, think about where we really are in this country.

Remember the poor. Maybe, just maybe, if enough of us do that things will change.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Our Entertaining Use of the Bible

Paying attention to how people use the Bible in developing a worldview can be downright entertaining.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has quoted Jesus' line to me--"The poor you will have with you always, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me" (Mark 14:7)--I could stop worrying about how to fund our organization!

Jesus made the statement in response to critics who wondered out loud why he allowed a follower to "waste" an expensive gift just to honor him. Of course, he had the good sense to know that the real concern of these critics had nothing to do with the poor. His reply made that clear, as he challenged them and us to understand that poor folks are in abundance and can be assisted whenever those of us with wealth decide to turn loose some of it!

Most people never look "behind" what Jesus says here.

As was usually the case when he spoke with authority, Jesus was quoting scripture here. The text he had in mind was Deuteronomy 15 (fifth from the front cover!).

Now I've noticed across the years that most of the people who throw Jesus' words at me about the poor also have a very high view of the Bible. These Bible believing, sometimes Bible banging folks, are pretty sure Jesus is responsible for the Deuteronomy passage as well.

So, what do we find there?

Well, for starters there is this directive: ". . .there should be no poor among you, . . .if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today" (15:4-5).

That line comes immediately following a commandment to cancel all debts every seven years in the land of Israel.

Hmmm. . .poverty reduction program based on systemic, public policy that helps level the economic playing field on a scheduled, periodic basis. That would sure make a difference in how many people were poor, remained poor and fell into poverty, wouldn't you think?

But, the text goes on.

The next line reads this way, "If there is a poor man among your brothers. . .do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs" (15:7-8).

Hmmm. Pretty radical, this call to lend without much question. The text continues by prohibiting any calculation as to when the next seventh year of debt forgiveness would mean for this loan (15:9-10)! You'd think the Creator really knows us, wouldn't you?

Get the picture so far?

first, there should be no poor among the people of God because we are all doing what God says we should do about poverty from a global, macro-economic standpoint.

Second, almost as a beginning concession by God, if there happens to be someone poor, then the solution is to lend freely.

But then, it is as if God says to himself, "Wait what am I thinking! I know how these people are!"
At this point there follows the final line, the one Jesus quoted to his critics who had observed the presentation of a genuinely openhearted gift. The text in the Hebrew Bible reads, "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land" (15:11).

Why is this true?

Because of something in the poor that is wrong or faulty or irresponsible? A basic laziness or unworthiness or stupidity? Not according to this text, the one Jesus quotes.

No. The problem is with people who claim to be interested in making God happy. People who love to read and quote the Bible with ease, but who also find ingenious ways to ignore what the good book actually says about poverty, its root causes and those crushed under it.

Like I say, it is really entertaining to watch us use this book.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Dr. King

Amazing how popular history has a way of dulling the sharp edge of truly significant lives.

It is almost as if we cannot tolerate the truth about powerful people, especially when they live as agents of challenge and change, banging against the status quo of our comfort.

History-makers, when hard a work making history, are not easy to control!

Once they are gone though the process of "domestication" begins. Before long we are able to add another icon to our collection of American heroes without much thought of the radical, world-shaking nature of their ideas or work in life.

Today we "celebrate" the life, work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The great civil rights leader and peace activist lived a thoroughly amazing life.

These days most of us lapse into sentimentality when it comes to Dr. King.

Want a challenge? Want to think more deeply about Dr. King, his work and his continuing challenge to America during this confusing time of war and continuing injustice in the United States?

Go to http://www.blackcommentator.com/121/121_mlk_pf.html and read Paul Rockwell's essay, "Dr. King Was Not a 'Dreamer.'"

Once you've done that, take a look at a copy of The Dallas Morning News today. The "Viewpoints" section on the editorial page has a wonderful and challenging essay by one of my partners here at Central Dallas Ministries, Rev. Gerald Britt, Jr., our Executive Director.

Or, you can go to Gerald's essay at:

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/ opinion/viewpoints/stories/011705dnedibritt.9515a.html

Now, celebrate the day by remembering the truth about the national leader whose amazing life stands behind it!














Sunday, January 16, 2005

Heaven Can Wait

Forgive me, but heaven gets in the way of lots of important work.

Hold on, now. Before you fire off a red hot e-mail response or call me on the phone or assemble a church tribunal, hear me out.

For twenty-five years I served churches as a pastor. For the past ten years I have been a member of an inner city church. So, I feel like I know how church folk think--both middle-class and under-class church members.

Most churches in the United States focus on the needs of their members. Their most pressing concern seems to be eternity and how it will be spent. Naturally, the weekly sermons in most of these churches deal with the issues of salvation: how to obtain it, how to hold on to it, and what it will mean eventually. Being "right with God" remains the central concern. Most of a church's resources follow this fundamental focus so that almost everything flows toward getting people over safely to "the other side." It has been my observation that, ironically, the more a church speaks of God's love and grace, the more preoccupied it becomes with the afterlife.

When measuring the extent of this other worldly emphasis, I have noticed that the economic status of a congregation doesn't really matter much.

Middle and upper-class churches find it easy to get lost (no pun intended here!) in the idea of eternal salvation and bliss--never mind that most members of these churches live mighty near bliss already or that almost all claim to be believers already secure in the arms of Jesus.

In such a thought system, it is easy to ignore large sections of scripture that call for a rather radical lifestyle designed to be deeply rooted in the pain, need and injustice of the world. Ignoring the clear call to this alternative way of living becomes sensible if you embrace the seemingly more important option of pointing hurting people to a heavenly existence that is just ahead for the faithful.

For the typical church member the quest for heaven fuels most of the spiritual energy whirling around her or his religion. At the same time, the "out of this world" focus provides a nice, better, a convenient shield against any serious grappling with the world's harsh, unjust realities as over against lots of obvious, middle and upper-class privilege.

Strangely, things are about the same in the churches of the poor. Again, the emphasis is on the "great by and by" when all the pain and the injustice of this world will be over forever.

Poor folks also feel very confident when it comes to God's love and the assurance of eternal salvation. Rather than organize and take action to improve life, to call for justice and a more equitable distribution of opportunity, or to work hard for changes to the current system in the name of faith, most of the energy is directed toward this constant longing for the life beyond.

Please understand: this theology drives lots of very practical decisions--like how to allocate billions of dollars in response to a world of need or how best to use the creative talents of people who claim they desire more than anything to please their Creator.

In this system, well-to-do believers can enjoy life as they have it, assured that heaven is theirs, along with all the here-and-now blessings that feel like the mark of God's clear blessing. The poor can dutifully accept their present plight, knowing that someday things will be better, that somehow their suffering will be rewarded and their lives vindicated.

The central focus of a life need not be to change or challenge the evil systems of this world. Oh, a few extremists may opt for that approach, but the church as a whole dare not be defined by such people.

I find myself wondering more and more these days if God is really pleased with all this talk about heaven, especially in light of all of the expressions of hell that are everywhere around us here on earth.

What might happen if the church left the matter of heaven to God and took the call to care for the earth a bit more seriously? Just wondering.

". . .your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Jesus (Matthew 6:10)

Friday, January 14, 2005

Faith Alone Is Never Enough

Since the advent of the “Charitable Choice” movement of the early Clinton era, Americans find it easier to look to the faith community to address many of the nation’s most pressing social challenges.

President Bush raised the bar higher when he created the White House Office for Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. Thanks to Bush’s leadership, each of the major cabinet level agencies that address social issues now have new offices focused on the role and importance of community and faith-based initiatives. It is clear that the playing field for receiving government funding through grants has been leveled dramatically. An Executive Order issued early in Bush’s first term removed numerous barriers to access for community and faith-based groups that sought funding in the open competition of grant writing.

All of this to say, times are interesting for faith-based, community organizations working in inner city neighborhoods like those in Dallas. It is definitely a new day when federal, state and local governments invite a wide variety of churches, synagogues and mosques to the table of community engagement, planning and service delivery that involves the use of public funds.

While it is encouraging that faith-based and community organizations are being drawn deeper into the important work of community development and renewal, big picture perspective needs to be kept in view. People of faith can do many things, some of which government cannot do. People of faith are making a huge difference in the lives of millions of individuals and in thousands of neighborhoods across the nation. People of faith should continue to be included in the movement to rebuild America’s crumbling inner cities.

But faith will never be enough when it comes to any comprehensive renewal of urban communities.

Faith must be joined by fair, equitable and well-informed public policy if America’s inner city areas are to be reclaimed for decent living. Take just three examples of pressing community issues demanding better public policy: education, housing and health care.

Education

Urban schools in America are struggling and in disarray. Community groups, including persons of faith, must be involved here as never before. Over the last decade volunteers and staff members from Central Dallas Ministries have worked in over a dozen public schools to assist teachers, administrators and students in learning and teaching.

But our faith alone cannot lift the load today.

Leaders in the public arena must address issues associated with more adequate funding, higher standards for teachers and administrators, equitable distribution of resources within school districts and blatant discrimination based on class. These issues begin at the local level and extend all the way through Austin’s statehouse to Washington. When it comes to our schools, faith must be joined by decisive and aggressive public action for the good of all our children.

Housing

America is in the midst of a workforce housing shortage. The housing crisi s has been building for over five decades. We see it in the inner city of Dallas, as well as inevery major city in America. Faith-based and community-led non-profit housing organizations can play a role in addressing the shortage. However, it would be foolish to think they can end the crisis. Again, public policy makers must take steps to incentivize the work of developers in low-income, inner city areas. The problems here are complex. New leadership is needed beginning at the local level and extending to the national. Faith is not enough.

Healthcare

Every urban area in the United States faces a mounting crisis in healthcare delivery. Dallas is no exception. The Parkland Health and Hospital System, one of the best public healthcare systems in the nation, has the capacity to care for just over half of those eligible to receive its services. Again, faith-based and community efforts can help.

But the scale and scope of the problem begs for better public policy decisions. More funding is needed. Better state policy addressing the drive-in patients from outside Dallas County should be formulated at the insistence of the Dallas County delegation in Austin. The health and well-being of low-income citizens of Dallas impact workforce issues, education, crime control and family stability. Once more we must admit faith is not enough.

People of faith need to be involved in informing, shaping and influencing this new and better public policy.

One of the great ironies of life in Dallas, Texas has to do with the amazing prevalence of churches, synagogues and other communities of faith in view of our public policy crisis. Dallas is one of the most churched cities in the world. Yet, there is an obvious disconnect between the celebration of faith in our numerous houses of worship and the manner in which that professed faith works itself out in public life.

Faith must inform public policy in new ways. People of faith must demand better of their elected leaders.

The values of fairness, justice, equity and opportunity for all should be championed by faith leaders. These same values should be put to work and lived out in the market places of this city.

In this steady, on-going endeavor, faith will find its most important role. Public policy informed by faith could change an entire city.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

My Struggling, Beautiful Friends

Walked through our Resource Center yesterday.

I've learned to come here for soul-lift. So many people jammed into a much too small community center.

People of all ages, races, sizes, backgrounds, hometowns. All there together.

When I say "together," I really mean together.

The spirit of the place is amazing--not perfect, just amazing.

The people who show up for groceries, encouragement, rental assistance or whatever, present all sorts of attitudes and dispositions. The variations in "tone" can be intriguing to say the least.

Some are sad. One lady told me a few years ago, "Brother Larry, we carry our grief in buckets, we have so much of it. Everybody's lost something dear."Jobs, children, mates, homes, health--the loss list is staggering.

Some are downright mad. I'd be mad too if I had to depend on a place like ours for a significant part of my monthly food supply, especially after working a 40-hour week or watching my mate do so while I kept the kids and cleaned houses or took in the children of others while they worked.

Things should be different in this city.

Others are so joyful it makes me shake my head! Joy in the midst of almost abject, certainly pressing poverty. Amazing to watch, but it is there every time I walk through.

Our volunteers are busy, efficient, helpful and engaged--and 99% of them are labeled "poor" too--most are older folks, with the exception of the folks who are between jobs or assigned to us by the courts for community service. Funny how that often works out. Once their court assignment is served, many keep coming back to help out.

I've learned to tell homeless folks, "When you are ready for a change, just come here and hang out. Good things always seem to happen to the people who do."

Rainy day. Dreary actually. Busy, hectic, crowded, frustrating--but brimming with hope and friendship and meaningful connections for all of us.

It is the hope and friendship that really get to me. I typically brush away a tear or two as I talk to folks, play with their children and watch the devotion, genuine concern and compassion of our volunteers.

The people I talked to yesterday struggle. They are beautiful people. They are my friends. That's why I keep coming back.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Hunger and Mutual Self-Interest

Thinking in economic terms about hunger and poverty relief is something we need to do more frequently and more comprehensively. The results could be surprising, as well as beneficial to all of us.

Consider the economics of food stamps.

A Department of Agriculture initiative, the Food Stamp program from its inception was intended to provide a safety net of protection under our poorest citizens while also extending an economic and dietary supplement to working Americans who earned up to 130% of the national poverty level ($22,945 annually for a family of 4).

Consider the example sketched out by Robert I. Lerman and Michael Wiseman in their report prepared for the Economics Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture (“Restructuring Food Stamps for Working Families,” page 4). As of 2001, a mother with two children working 35 hours per week at minimum wage ($5.15 per hour) and paying $400 monthly in rent would “enjoy” an after-tax income level 4 percent above the poverty line, assuming the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps supplemented her family’s income. By not participating in the Food Stamp program, the family income would fall to 16 percent below the federal poverty line.

Since the advent of comprehensive welfare reform in 1996, the number of Dallas County residents eligible to receive food stamps has risen, while the number of actual recipients has declined sharply.

The number of residents receiving food stamps dropped from 250,000 in 1990 to 80,000 in 2000. Between 1994 and 2000 the number of persons receiving food stamps fell by 68% in Dallas County.

A survey conducted in 1998 by a coalition of groups working to reduce poverty in Dallas reported that in 1995 there were approximately 65,000 persons in the county who were eligible, but not receiving the food supplement benefit. By 1999, that number had risen to 171,000 persons, an increase of 163 per cent! By 2001, the numbers reflected the continuing trend with 84,338 receiving food stamps out of a pool of 317,748 eligible residents or a total of 233,410 who could benefit from the program, but for some reason were not.

Public policy initiatives since 2001 have done nothing to improve the participation numbers. In fact, a number of determined efforts by the state have worked to drive the numbers even further in the wrong direction. Clearly the Food Stamp program is failing thousands of our neighbors whose lives could be enriched by participation.

What normally escapes us in such analysis is the fact that the working poor are not the only losers in our state and county’s failure to aggressively support these working families.

Our local economy loses as well. As a result, business loses, employers lose, labor loses, and government loses.

Consider the economic impact of our embarrassing performance. According to the Texas Department of Human Services, the average monthly food stamp benefit per person in Dallas County is approximately $80.00, or $960.00 annually, a real benefit to working people who support the service and construction industries locally.

What is lost to our entire community in the process due to our failure to enroll all of those eligible is startling. By enrolling all those who qualify for the program and assuming an average benefit of $80 per month to each participant, our county would benefit from the annual injection of an additional $224,073,600 in purchasing power to the local economy.

Assume for the sake of argument that the benefit, if extended to every eligible resident of the county, would decline to an average of $50 per month. Using this more conservative metric, the loss to the county’s economy would be $140,046,000 annually.

Since, with only a few exceptions, food products are not subject to sales tax, the benefit to our sagging tax base would be indirect, but the benefit would remain real. Grocers, those who work in the retail food industry and practically every other sector of the local economy would benefit from the participation of working families in a program designed to undergird those who work but who do not earn enough to make a life for themselves and their families.

The simple fact is Dallas County and the State of Texas leave hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds on the table annually due to poor performance in delivering a vital economic benefit to low-income, working residents that in turn benefits us all. The federal government funds 100% of the Food Stamp benefit, 50% of the associated administrative costs and 50% of any investigative expenses incurred. Our state government picks up the other half of both administrative and investigative costs—a small price to pay for such huge economic impact.

The dollars lost to our local economy are dollars we sent to Washington—our dollars. Bringing these funds back into circulation in Dallas County makes good sense both economically and from a public policy standpoint.

Since the early 1980s, our economy has depended on “trickle down” policies to stimulate growth. Maybe we need to more seriously consider the impact of “bubble up” strategies to enhance sustained economic opportunity for everyone.

Whether we realize it our not, we are all bound together in terms of mutual self-interest. We should act together today to insure that every resident of our county eligible to receive food stamps does so. The benefit will touch us all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Street Man?

Old, gnarled hands,
Black as coal and strong,
Responding to my steady embrace of
Greeting friendship.

Teeth as white as snow,
Revealed when one more smile
Spread across his face,
As he read, sized up my inviting grip.

Talking only of work to be found,
And he over seventy;
And of his wife on the street in
Her chair, terrible home on wheels.

A blanket’s what’s needed here,
He declared against the cold wind outside.
Night, a tough duty with a freeze
Blowing down what’s left of today.

Come to think of it—the grip was warm,
A couple of bucks for a pack of smokes
Would be right nice, and a bit more for the fee
Collected at the Army’s noisy, nosey Salvation gate.

The wind it is sure enough cold
Against your face, and that blasted
Chair sits awful hard and chill
On a night like this one’s bound to be.

No blanket to be found here,
He settles for loose pocket change
Rounded up in a rush to drive away guilt
In the face of an empty-handed retreat.

A promise couched in our manageable
“Come back tomorrow” for the cover,
By then surely the world will have
Changed for the two of you, as if warm wind would blow.

Tomorrow sometimes never comes
For people who have it all
But not what’s really needed;
We had no reappearance for the blanket.

What did I miss? What did he know?

Larry James

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Death by Discrimination

Not many people talk about it. Beyond an occasional newspaper report or an interview on a morning news program, no one makes much of it. Yet, as you unpack the facts, the truth of the matter is staggering to say the least.

Discrimination in the United States today is not about voting rights, public accommodations, or housing; though no doubt, examples of racism's lingering presence could be cited in each of these categories.

Discrimination takes it most significant toll today in what is a surprising arena for white Americans: health care delivery. The disparities between health care outcomes for whites and blacks are more than incredible.

The December issue of The Journal of Public Health documents the harsh reality: more than 886,000 deaths could have been prevented from 1991 to 2000 if African Americans had received the same care as whites.

The same study estimates that only 176,633 lives were saved during the same period by technological advancements in medicine, including better drugs, devices and procedures.

In other words, five times as many lives could have been saved during the same period if the disparities between white and black medical treatment had been eliminated.

To be sure, the story is a complex one. Less than adequate access to equal health care is not the only factor behind the dismal statistics. Blacks have a greater incidence of some diseases than whites. Education, income, lack of health insurance and environment all play a part in the startling gap in health and well being.

But, the fact is, each factor ties back to race, class, poverty and discrimination.

The deadly discrimination at work here reflects systemic realities that must be addressed through changes in public policy. At the same time, those who suffer discrimination and those who work for healthier communities must respond with concerted, organized action.

People who claim the United States has "the best health care system in the world" need to provide a more precise definition of that crucial phrase, "health care system."

Whites who can afford insurance do enjoy the best health care system available anywhere.

Unfortunately, this assessment does not hold for all Americans. Sadly, the facts of the case are simply undeniable.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Shoes

A pair of new shoes.
Ancient Amos’ retail value, the purchase price
For what’s left of the life of a poor man.
Not too bad a deal, unless you are the man.

One prescription,generic antibiotic for tiny ears and the fever
Of night—the purchase price for one more shred of
A father’s, a mother’s dignity willingly offered up
In a crowded place of charity instead of life.

High tech preservation of the good life whirls nearby,
With new robotics and life-scanners projecting full-color
Images of the insides of those with deep pockets and policies,
Clearing minds and hearts of a reality just a block away.

A penny for your thoughts, about as prophetic as we get,
While children cry and mothers pray and fathers wince against
The plight that is their city, the place of light and games
And the new—clearly as old as Amos himself.

High steeples point up to Heaven to keep from facing Earth,
Minds stolen away from the street
By the power of salvation’s lure,
Have it all and don’t look back—
Amos’ tears still fall.

Larry James

Friday, January 07, 2005

Learn to Listen to Local Leaders

Hours before anyone knew about or understood the overwhelmly destructive approaching power of the Indian Ocean tsunami, members of five indigenous tribes on the Indian archipelago of Andaman and Incobar islands fled to the safety of the highlands.

Ashish Roy, a local environmentalist explained, "They can smell the wind. They can gauge the depth of the sea with the sound of their oars. They have a sixth sense which we don't possess" (The Dallas Morning News, Wednesday, January 5, 2005--10A).

Talk about the benefit and wisdom of paying attention to local intelligence!

Smart community developers learn quickly the importance of paying attention to local leaders.

If you want to know the truth of a community or a neighborhood or a grouping of people, consult indigenous leadership. Take local leaders seriously.

It has been our experience again and again at Central Dallas Ministries. If you are really concerned to know and to learn, ask and trust the locals! As a matter of fact, if you aren't prepared to trust, just don't ask.

Missionary approaches don't work very well with people, at least not for very long.

Trusting people, valuing their insights, their experience and their knowledge is what friendship and, thus, community life is all about.

I am thankful members of these ancient tribes escaped the devastation and horror of the tsunami. I regret others did not have the benefit of their wisdom and counsel.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Little Girl

Just tonight I watched her walk, hand-in-hand with her mother, up a crowded downtown street. Traffic rushed past without notice. Her spindly legs barely able to support her small frame. So fragile, I waited for the wind to whisk her away. She must have been all of 6-years-old. Faded cotton dress, ragged little tennis shoes. A pair of much too large glasses. A huge Barbie Doll backpack, with the look of having arrived from some “in-touch” charity drive, draped across her small shoulders and somehow it did not fall to the ground.

Her mother appeared homeless, or at least lost on the streets. Maybe they were headed to the bus station. Or, possibly to one of the family shelters. I couldn’t tell. But I saw her.

I really saw her. She begins her life far behind the curve set by kids like my little granddaughter. This little girl has little chance in this country of ever “making it.” Will she finish high school? What are her chances for college? When will she become a mother herself? I wondered about her current health and her health care options. Where would she sleep tonight? Would she ever be truly safe? Where were the boundaries of her world when it comes to love, affection, opportunity? Did she know her daddy? Did he know her? I didn’t like the obvious answers that came to me instinctively.

For some reason as I watched this unremarkable pair walk the street, I thought of the church and its members and its leaders—me. I thought of a thousand books I’d read dealing with some grand thought or seemingly priceless theological or psychological nuance that was meant to “help me” do better, feel better, get on better. I thought of all the Sunday School classes and all the sermons and all the seminars and all the praise and worship times and sessions and trainings. I remembered countless learning opportunities.

I considered all of my “advantage.” And I realized in that one defining moment on that downtown block as I drove home after a day in my pampered world that all of it was rubbish, worthless, foolish, a horrible waste--an illusion and worse, a delusion. For all the claims, most of the essential, highly regarded stuff of my world is simply not true.

That one little first grade girl and her life and her mom—that is true and more, the life I caught a glimpse of today is the only truth that really matters.

The game we call life is far, far from fair and just and livable. And, of course, I know it is much, much worse elsewhere even in my city, not to mention the vast, teeming Third World.

One more thing I do know: all of my advantage with its vast world of words and ideas has done nothing to prepare me for handling the ultimate, undeniable truth delivered to my heart this evening by one tiny little creature stumbling along down a very busy, unknowing city street.

(This essay was written about two years ago on a cold night in Dallas.)

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Mayberry. . . With an Edge

My neighborhood is a stitch!

Since moving from suburban Richardson to downtown Dallas in January 1999, I've learned a lot about communities and people by just living where I live.

Don't get me wrong. Richardson is a good place to live. It is my hometown. I grew up there. And, I must say, it has changed a lot since I left six years ago. But that is a story for another day here.

The suburban community I left was pretty much cookie cutter in nature. At least our part of town was. It was unlike the Richardson where I grew up.

That Richardson (1953-1968) reminded me of the Mayberry of Andy Griffith and Barney Fife fame.

Everyone knew everyone. I could ride my bike from one end of town to the other, and did frequently. My parents didn't seem to worry about me much at all. It was a different day back then.

Strange as it may sound, my current neighborhood in Old East Dallas near the heart of the city reminds me in many respects of that earlier Richardson. No cookie cutter housing or people or circumstances here!

The street where I live today is amazingly interesting.

At one end of my block is an old brownstone apartment complex, vintage 1940. At the other end you find very small bungalows built most likely after World War II. Alongside them are run down apartments owned by some slum lord who doesn't care enough about any of us.

In between you'll find a couple or three old homes, circa 1910-20, that have been divided up into apartments--at least one was once a boarding house. There are a couple of rent houses. The rest of us own our homes.

My house dates from 1922. Translation: there is something to fix or think about fixing all of the time! The old, two-story, frame house is actually fun to live in, even though the toilet leaks occasionally, as the house rocks and rolls on its foundation! We've been able to make a number of needed improvements--our eager contribution to neighborhood renewal!

Our neighbors all around are fascinating.

The couple next door has lived in their house for almost twenty years. On the other side sits an old house that contains three apartments where young people live and come and go. Across the street live a biology professor from SMU and his wife who manages properties in the area--we actually purchased our home from them. Beside them reside another couple. The man is a professor who teaches history at the University of Texas at Dallas. His area of focus is the Viet Nam era.

Our neighbors are white and black and brown. In the area most are poor. Others fairly well off. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle.

I see and talk to homeless people almost daily. Sometimes I surprise them rummaging through my trash cans.

People actually walk in my neighborhood, and not for exercise. People walk to get to places! Kids play up and down the street. Families and neighbors talk on big, old front porches.

Dogs seem to run wild! Cats are everywhere, along with an occasional raccoon and opossum right in the heart of the city.

Sometimes folks around my house worry about crime. Very few of us are afraid.

We do hear gun shots at night on a regular basis. Alcohol and guns apparently go together. And there are a few drunks, drug addicts and troublemakers afoot in the community.

We all stick together. We all know each other. There are regular block parties where everyone is welcome. We communicate.

In many respects I feel at times as if I am living in the late 1950s or early 1960s here.

Surprisingly, it is a bit like Mayberry, but with an edge! A very nice edge.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

One Way Communities of Faith Could Make a Big Difference

Since the early days of the Clinton administration and even more frequently during President Bush's time in office, political leaders have turned to churches, synagogues, mosques and other faith-based organizations for solutions to some of the nation's more perplexing social challenges.

The Bush administration created the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to coordinate, focus and help fund the efforts of the "armies of compassion."

I confess I have serious reservations about just how much communities of faith can accomplish given the daunting nature of some of the challenges facing the nation, especially in urban areas.

Having admitted as much, I am going to suggest an idea that I believe could help in the transformation of inner city America.

Think with me for a moment as I try to explain.

In every city in the nation, every year, communities of faith launch capital campaigns to expand, refurbish and build new buildings for their own use.

For example, here in Dallas two years ago, three large churches raised a total of over $100 million to expand their church campuses.

Like most capital fundraising efforts, each of these included a "missional" dimension that earmarked a small percentage of the total given to be set aside for outreach activities, either foreign or domestic.

What if those three churches had agreed to designate just 5% (half a tithe) of their capital funds to create what we might call a replinishable community development loan fund.

On day one the fund, created by just three churches, would have had $5 million of operating capital.

The fund would be managed by a board of directors appointed from the participating churches. These decision makers would most likely be laypersons who currently have limited involvement in the day-to-day works of the faith communities in question and each would find new and meaningful work that aligns consistently with their own talents and special expertise.

The fund would be used to make loans to community development corporations with proven track records. Funds could be used for pre-development costs and/or for leveraging interim financing on housing and economic development projects that benefit the renewal of low-income communities. The low or no interest loans would be paid back to the fund once the various projects began to cash flow. Only projects with sound business plans would be selected for funding.

The fund would grow by adding new partners, as other faith groups conducted capital campaigns. Possibly a city's interfaith or ecumenical group could help coordinate the establishment and growth of such funds.

The impact of this kind of economic vehicle would be enormous.

Our experience at Central Dallas Ministries reveals that even a small amount of working capital can be leveraged many times over as projects get underway. What most community-based, community development corporations lack is adequate seed money to get projects moving.

Communities of faith could make an important difference by mobilizing a small percentage of their available wealth and by involving a few people with the necessary financial skills to help competent CDCs do their part to rebuild America's cities.

It is something to consider.





Monday, January 03, 2005

Capitalism and Community

For the most part capitalism has served America well.

Free enterprise, responding to market forces and the almost immutable laws of supply and demand, has been responsible for the creation of unimaginable wealth in this nation.

The economic system of the United States is in many respects the envy of the world. The possibilities provided by a free market economy motivate people to work hard, think creatively, invest aggressively and take risks for the sake of personal and corporate advancement.

Still, no economic system is flawless.

At times unchecked capitalism threatens the health and overall well-being of communities. Walter Rauschenbusch put it this way: "When fed with money, sin grows wings and claws."

I am thinking today of community and economic development in Dallas, Texas.

Why is it that, for the most part, new development flows to the outlying suburbs? Why does the north flourish while the south of the city continues to flounder?

The simple answer: north is where most of the money is.

But other factors need to be considered to understand the complete story here.

It is not just money that makes the suburbs both north and south and the north in general more attractive. It is the ease with which money changes hands in these hot development spots.

Suburban, northern county and regional development versus near-in city and southern sector development in Dallas is mostly about margins.

If, as a developer, I receive say 20% return on my investments out north, why would I want to settle for 9% down south? If my work is easier outside the city, why hassle inside the city for a lower return for my effort?

Unchecked or non-directed capitalism will follow the path of least resistance to the largest, most accessible pool of funds. No rocket science there.

Public sector (read government) leadership is a must for community and economic development in "lower margin" areas of a city and region like Dallas. If the reasonably expected profit margins are lower, the entire investment process must be incentivized in some attractive and creative manner to spur on development.

Cities have the capacity and, in my view, the responsibility to use their power to create such incentives. Tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, low-interest loans, bond funding initiatives, grants from higher up the public sector funding stream and innovative partnerships with non-profit and for-profit developers are all viable possibilities for city governments. In fact, cities use some, if not all, of these strategies when working with for-profit developers even in higher margin areas!

What we usually fail to see is that economic investment in "lower margin" areas benefits the entire community north and south in the form of increased tax revenues, decreasing crime, better code enforcement and stronger schools. Talk about long term return on investment!

Of course, the rate limiter for the redevelopment of the "harder" areas is usually easy to identify: courage, vision and leadership.

Unbridled capitalism seldom, if ever, serves the interests of the broader community.

Unregulated, greedy capitalism can damage community fabric severely and for generations.

If you ever doubt this fact, take a tour of south Dallas and then consider the health of the entire city.

Nehemiah 1-2

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Place Matters. . .a Lot!

To understand poverty it is important to focus on place.

Urban poverty cannot be addressed successfully by focusing only upon individuals. Unfortunately, too few are taking a broader view.

Urban poverty is much more complicated than understanding the "case stories" of a group of individuals who need food, shelter, work, child care, medical attention or transportation. Poverty in American cities is a systemic reality. That is, poverty is the result of forces--negative and positive--that overwhelm, align, segment, limit and position the poor in life in such ways that movement up and out is almost impossible without larger system or environmental changes.

Take neighborhoods as an example. Paul A. Jargowsky points out (Poverty and Place: Ghettos, Barrios and the American City) that once 40% of a neighborhood's population earns at or below the poverty line, that community is trapped in poverty and cannot change without major systemic interventions.

Something larger than ministry to individuals alone is now required to renew lives and restore hope.

Or, consider this surprising fact: a child raised in a negative home environment, but in a good neighborhood, has a better chance for a life of health and well-being than does a child raised in a positive home environment, but in a poor neighborhood (Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference).

My good friend, John Greenan, directs our Community Development Corporation at Central Dallas Ministries. John cares a lot about people on a one-by-one basis. But, he spends his days thinking in larger terms. John envisions communities and neighborhoods. He is trying to build a few new ones in some surprising places.

Place matters. Paved streets and trash pickup and code enforcement and crime watch efforts all matter. Focus on individuals is essential. Developing a larger vision that includes whole environments and collective actions, will be even more important to really overcoming poverty in our cities.

"Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." (Isaiah 58:12)

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Compassion's Response to Nature's Power

Who can comprehend the eruption of power and the sheer force that sent the most devastating tsunami in history streaking across the Indian Ocean at jetliner speed on Christmas night?

The energy shifted the geographic position of an island, moved the axis of the entire earth and generated walls of water that stole life from over 200,000 people by the time the final toll is known.

Possibly it is my age, but I no longer ask "Why?" when something like this occurs.

My mind turns more naturally to "What now?"

One fact is clear: our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world need our help with the basics--water, shelter, food, medical care and most of all hope. All cost.

If you would like to help, check out the websites of these organizations:

Oxfam http://www.oxfamamerica.org

World Vision http://www.WorldVision.org

UNICEF http://www.unicef.org

Each of these well-managed assistance and development agencies has a long and respectable history of delivering relief, compassion and hope to suffering people.

Begin 2005 by reaching out to someone you likely will never meet, but who will be forever grateful for your care.

Compassion, raw, human compassion may be the only force more powerful than even an earthquake like this one.