06 January 2017

Well-meaning Christian

I'm supposed to be writing an essay for Friday but am so happy about some news that I have been waiting for that I'm having difficulty sitting down to write.

For the past two years we had a friend living with us. He was on the edge of becoming homeless after extended under/unemployment. A group of our friends chipped in so he could finish out his lease at his old place. There were an even smaller number of folks in that group who had homes that were large enough to fit one more person into. Of those, the only one in an area with transit and access to job opportunities was ours.

When we got into to this I thought it would be for 6 months or so. Our goal was to give our friend time and space to get back on his feet. He found a job within a month of moving in. At the end of the first year we set up an agreement that he would pay rent and plan to find his own place by the end of year 2.

Today it is almost 2 years to the day since he moved in with us and my husband and son have spent the day helping him move into his new place. To say I am thrilled is an understatement.

Part of my desire to help my friend came from my faith. I believe that those of us with more have a Christian duty to help those with less. I don't believe in a 'prosperity gospel'. I do believe that God calls me to help make earth Heaven for those who share it with me and not to help create a hell-scape of unending poverty and despair while I look on.
Also, my luck could change in a moment. We are all just an accident, illness, economic recession, or natural disaster away from losing everything. The only thing that can help us through the bad times is other people.

I would rather their was a reliable safety net so my friends and family did not have to face poverty and homelessness if luck turns on them. But, aside, from a few overstressed programs, that is not current reality. The stress of poverty, unemployment and unstable housing can make it very difficult for people to climb back up to economic stability after a crash.

After consulting with my family, we agreed to be the support network for our friend. We offered him a stable place to live while he re-built his life.

There are differences between being a well-intentioned Christian and providing effective help that prepares a person for re-entry into having their own housing. Here are a few lessons we learned along the way:

If a person is really down to their last dime, it is going to take at least a year of stable employment and minimal housing expenses in order to start saving. Plan on at least 18 months (and that only if they have good credit). Two years is really the minimum for someone with no resources left.

Folks who are near-homeless frequently have debts run-up during the time they tried to hold it together. Something I would do differently is insist from the get go that the person moving in get some sort of financial counseling and tell someone (it doesn't have to me) all of their outstanding debt and make a plan to repay it. This back-debt will affect things like the ability to get a new place even after they have had a job and built up savings.

It is difficult to know how long the person will be staying with you. However, make sure that the person knows from the get-go that this is only temporary, and once the immediate crisis is past, make a plan (in writing) for how long they can stay and what your expectations are. Expectations can be: saving a certain amount, getting financial counseling, taking steps to connect with agencies that can help. Offer to help with networking and time consuming research.

It is important to have a written agreement because, depending on where you live and your housing laws, you could accidentally create a tenancy agreement with the person. While many housing laws favor owners who are renting out a room in their home, it can be messy and expensive to get someone out if they refuse to go. We didn't consult a lawyer but that is because of circumstances in our background and our relationship with the person who moved in with us. At the beginning of the 2nd year we did have a written agreement that stipulated that it would not be renewed and set a move out date.

Working with agencies that help low income, disabled, or seniors takes time. The have a lot on their plate and response time is slow. Start finding and working with them as quickly as possible. Be firm with the person moving in that this is a requirement. Things that take a week in the commercial world will take 4-6 weeks in the non-profit world. Adjust expectations and time-lines accordingly.

Be clear in your expectations with the person moving in. In our case he was joining a complicated household with 3 adults and one teen. We have a lot of 'house rules' after 20+ years of living together. I wrote them up when he moved in and was surprised to find that they covered 5 full pages. These 'rules' were really the unwritten agreements that evolved over the years we have lived together. It was eye-opening to write them all down. 

Expectations for living with you can include: quiet times in the house, cleaning responsibilities & standards, what areas of the house the person has access to without having to ask, how appliance work (especially if you have any ones that need special treatment to keep working), how trash and recycling should be dealt with. It sounds like a lot, but if you are up front with the person it will be more helpful than if you keep springing 'but we always do it this way' comments on them.

We are very glad we could help our friend avoid homelessness, but it took work and active effort on everyone's part (not just our friend) to make it happen. My husband in particular did a great deal of networking to try to find resources.

Well-meaning Christianity can provide an opportunity to "Seek the Lord while he may be found" in our actions towards our fellow beings, but having a plan and following through will make that well-meaning Christian impulse that much more effective.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway

This essay was originally published at The Episcopal Cafe on 6 January 2017.

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