In Defense Of The Union Gospel Mission

by William Skink

Earlier this month Dan Brooks directed the focus of his weekly column at Missoula’s Union Gospel Mission, piggybacking on Derek Brouwer’s earlier piece about a recent decision by UGM to discontinue providing lunchtime meals to their homeless clientele.

Brouwer’s piece first introduces us to Terri Wood, a Christian woman apparently more in line with the spirit of Christ because she is persisting in providing food, where UGM is not:

Wood sees Set Free as filling a gap in basic services for Missoula’s homeless, but UGM no longer shares the same philosophy. Executive Director Don Evans says the mission decided to discontinue its free meals program as part of an effort to “attack” what he describes as a “culture of entitlement” among some homeless people that he believes the service may have helped foster. UGM provided a small fraction of the meals served by the Poverello, but the mission’s more lenient policies attracted people who were too drunk or disruptive to eat at the Pov.

“If we limit those types of resources, then they’re going to think about their direction in life,” Evans says.

And here is Brooks piling on, quoting scripture to Christian-shame UGM’s decision:

The Jesus of the gospels fed everybody. That was one of his signature moves. The idea that helping people can make them lazy didn’t enter Christianity until a few generations later. “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat,” Paul the Apostle wrote in 2 Thessalonians 3:10. It should be noted that Paul was not one of the original 12 disciples. He uses “we,” though, to imply that his words were those of Jesus, too.

Maybe the Union Gospel Mission should change its name to the Union Pauline Epistle Mission. Paul’s position on feeding those who don’t work is more popular today, among Christians and secular authorities alike. It is an article of faith among conservatives and even moderate liberals that giving things to people who can’t pay makes them feel “entitled.”

Here’s an idea: Maybe people are entitled to food. I’m not just talking about people who would like to work but can’t find jobs, either. I mean the drunks, the malingerers, the able-bodied jerks who won’t contribute and think we’re suckers for making them sandwiches. These people should not starve to death on our watch, because whether they eat is not a measure of their characters. It’s a measure of ours.

The big problem I have here with this tag-team criticism of UGM’s decision is that the narrow focus on the loaded term “entitlement” used by Evans frames this as an ideological issue instead of a practical one. And I get it. A Christian organization criticizing itself for creating a culture of entitlement is too ripe for a weekly like the Indy not to pick up on, but it’s definitely not the whole story.

To understand the practical necessity of doing something different one would first have to understand what is not working. I think it is very difficult for anyone without direct experience serving the clientele UGM has served for years to understand this. My personal opinion is UGM is putting their own volunteers and staff at risk by serving who they are serving in their current space.

Entitlement to someone without direct experience is an abstraction to be discussed in theological or philosophical terms. Entitlement to someone like Don Evans could be having a sandwich thrown at you by a serial inebriate because it’s peanut butter and jelly instead of egg salad.

UGM is doing very difficult work with clients even the Poverello Center can’t safely serve. And UGM is not alone in acknowledging they can’t keep doing what they have been doing in the way they have been doing it. It was reported just this week that the Pov is also making some changes to how many they can safely serve:

The Poverello Center announced a new cap on the number of overnight residents it will accept, citing safety issues.

The nonprofit released the announcement Tuesday, saying that as of Aug. 6, the overnight shelter census will be limited to 150 residents. The shelter will allow up to 175 people during cold winter months.

Amy Allison Thompson, Poverello executive director, says the cap is a difficult choice, made with the input of staff and clients.

In a statement, she said:

“We are working hard every day with folks to try to get them permanently housed through the Missoula Coordinated Entry System. Sleeping numbers beyond the capacity of our staff and building puts everyone’s safety at risk and makes it much harder for us to achieve our ultimate goal, which is finding permanent, stable housing for those of us who are most vulnerable.”

I think both the Poverello Center and Union Gospel Mission have had to get more realistic about what they can and can’t do with the resources they have, or don’t have. It is not the responsibility of either organization to solve complex issues fueling chronic homelessness, like mental illness and addiction. These are community problems that require community solutions.

I hope more attention gets directed toward why our community continues to fail to close gaps in services for chronically homeless individuals. I also hope UGM and other service providers get the credit they deserve for doing what they can in the face of dwindling resources and increasing need.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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