A Homeless Services Faith Based Model That Works: The Rotating Shelter

I heard about the rotating shelter model in a few communities, yet my first experience was last year at Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter near Detroit. At the church hosting the week of our visit we met Lori and Savanna, Dawn and Ryle, and Leon, a homeless veteran with a powerful story. This year, which just happened to be the same church as last year, we met LaQuisha and her daughter and Anthony.
I love the rotating shelter model. Besides the obvious impact (please watch Anthony’s story) I love different faith based organizations working together to help hurting people.  If you’ve been reading this blog or following me on twitter you’ve heard me talk about faith based being the answer to homelessness, but, as is, the evangelical church is stuck on stupid.

OK right there I know some Christians turned off. It’s OK to complain about service at a restaurant, or at an electronic store, or at Starbucks,  or about an elected official, but it’s never OK to talk bad about what’s wrong in the church – right? WRONG! That form of pressure to keep us silent is called ‘manipulation’, and for a long time pastors have used tactics like manipulation to maintain ultimate power. The church needs to change – the church must change, and we need to engage in open conversation about what’s good and what’s not so good.  There is a revolution coming and it’s not going to come from the pulpit.

Typical church homeless services consists of either feeding people randomly in a park, or housing homeless people forcing them to pray and read the bible.  Even though churches have good intentions and mean well, randomly feeding people  in a park often causes more harm than good.  Housing homeless people is a serious step in the right direction, but two bible studies a day and sweeping floors is not a healthy program. It’s just structure and when the structure is gone people go back to their old ways.  We say we are creating “disciples” but the truth is we are not giving a person life skills needed to live a healthy, productive life in today’s society.

We, all of us, must change our thinking to focus only on housing, jobs and health services. If we are doing homeless services at some level our benchmark must be putting people into housing, finding people jobs, or helping those with disabilities – who cannot work – live a productive life.  Feeding people randomly does not get people into housing or employment. The typical church program won’t help people with mental illness (we make the bible out to have magic powers, yet we carefully select  who goes into our church programs leaving out the severely mentally ill)

But every single church, or temple, or bridge club, or bowling team can work together to support a rotating shelter.  The Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter Team is a group of 90 churches that pool resources to help 60 homeless people get back on their feet. Some churches provide housing, some vans for transportation, some cool meals, and everyone wins. Like I said I visited twice.  Both times the old church ladies in the back were having a blast. The smiles were endless. Although it was just a meal prepared and served,  it was combined with a strategy to get people into housing and support services.

I urge you, no I beg you. If you’re a faith based leader please look at what real effect you have on the community around you. If your tech or worship budget is higher then what you are putting back into the community you are off balance. And to be honest, the only churches that will see growth in the years to come are the ones that are truly helping the hurting people around them – and not just their own members.  Please start working with other organizations instead of being the Lone Ranger. And if the need is there, and I would bet that it is, please find a rotating shelter around you or start one.

Here is an interview with executive director, Rhonda Powell. We talk about the rotating shelter model and the current state of the economy. This is a very powerful interview with lots of information.Please watch and share.

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  • http://www.sweet-joni.blogspot.com Joni_In_MN

    The video is a great message — Gathering together as a community to help the homeless is neccessary. And yes, the survival mood does kick in, survival thinking kicks in BEFORE a person even hits the street.

    Thirty days is not long enough in a shelter though either… Duluth, MN is one of the BEST programs I've seen to end homelessness! We all need to follow their example. Which, here in Grand Rapids, MN is our goal… the homeless shelter has plans of moving into a perment bldg. structure rather than a Church. :-)

    Tho, I do have to say, the homeless shelter here now housed in a Church do NOT force ppl into attending their Church, Bible Study, or the likes that you are describing. I believe your statement on that is a bit off… which turns ppl away from even helping. Just my thoughts. Thanks for sharing the video! And God Bless! :-)

  • http://hardlynormal.com hardlynormal

    Hi Joni,

    thanks for your comment. Great to hear about shelters taking action and even better churches taking action.

    Sorry if you felt my statement on faith based homeless services a “bit off”. I have traveled all over the country, I worked in full time ministry for many years, and I even was helped off the streets by a ministry.

    even though there are some great faith based organizations, I can tell you first hand that most care more about a sales quota of sinners prayers than actually getting someone into housing. Most homeless people just to eat have to listen to preaching. And as sad as it may sound many churches force the homeless people living on their campus to get up early and pray and go to bible studies. I have seen some real insane “bible based” programs over the last 16 years.

    the people that are turned away from not helping would have never helped in the first place. believe me that is true. people don't like change but we must change. people don't like to deal with all the problems associated with helping people off the streets but we must take action now.

    again – thanks for your comment. The good news is the church is changing. The good news is their are people who really care about real results and not just nice stories.

  • http://www.DahliaKurtz.com Dahlia

    I just came upon your Twitter profile, and of course your blog. What you do is so important. Thank you.

    I thought you may appreciate this… a story I did on a homeless man who changed my life.


  • Andrew Phinney

    Thank you for sharing this. I want to ask more your comment on feedings in the parks often causing more harm than good. Can you go further into detail about the negative effects this causes? In Richmond Va we are currently having a major controversy stemming from the proposed 18 month closure and renovations of a park that has been used for many years to serve meals, both by faith based and non-faith based organizations. There are both homeless and non-homeless people that attend these meals. Richmond also has a number of shelters and churches that offer what they can, although I do not believe that we have solutions that fit every homeless persons needs here, and we both know that there are a number of people that have been failed by the shelters time and time again and have resorted to pitching camp in the woods and parks instead. My question about the negative impacts on park meals would be based more towards a non-faith based organization such as Food Not Bombs. Your thoughts and advice on this would be greatly appreciated Mark. Below I am adding a few links to my blog, what I have come across in the last 4 weeks since my interest in the homeless community sparked.


    Thank you once again! Oh, one more thing, I shared your twitter handle with a lady from Tokyo Broadcasting Systems that is trying to put together a story about some new ordinances supposedly sweeping through the United States banning feeding programs from using public areas such as parks. Her first name is Kazue. Just a heads up.

    Thank you Mark!

  • John

    Earlier this year I was engaging a client that was previously dropped by case management, labeled ‘non-compliant’. She was now 7 months pregnant and still coming to get condoms. I pulled every lead I could and it came down to contacting one of the faith based shelter providers.

    He came across as the typical example of manipulator, using his own “God saved me from the bottle, they’re just weak” rhetoric. I went through 30 minutes listening to his rhetoric when it could have been a done deal in 5 to get the girl off the streets until her transitional bed/dorm came open.

    He replaced his one bad habit with another instead of recovering.