A Place to Call Home

A Place to Call Home

October 10, 2021 | Sarah Stewart

A year ago, one month before the pandemic hit, I started volunteering at Abby’s House. I want to tell you some of the stories I’ve encountered. These are not the stories of any one person, but rather a composite to protect privacy.

was an 18-or-19-year-old senior in high school. When her mother kicked her out of their home, she was in her final semester. She worked every day after school at a part-time job and was on track to graduate. When she moved into the shelter, her classmates took up a toiletries and clothes drive. Her teacher picked her up some mornings to make sure she got to school. She stayed in the shelter for a few months—and she graduated—and then moved into housing for young adults.

M was a woman with intellectual disabilities who worked full time but had never graduated from high school. She is kind, friendly and outgoing. While at Abby’s, she completed her GED. She received a promotion at work. After a year at the shelter, she moved into Abby’s rooming house for women, a permanent place to call her own at an affordable rent.

Here’s a story that happened here at church. A man pitched his tent in a corner of the church property. He’s actually gotten it down into the well between the Dining Room and the Upper Parking Lot—I can’t imagine how he got down there with his gear. His tent is in good condition and the spot is clean. Members and I happen to be walking around the outside of the church and see his bright red tent. I ask to talk to him and let him know that although we won’t kick him out that night, or call the police, he can’t stay here multiple nights, and he can’t leave his things here after this night. I remind him about the shelter on Queen Street—which has 58 beds, for people of all genders, and where you don’t have to be sober—but he is adamant he doesn’t want to go there. He himself does seem sober. He is soft-spoken and polite. I’m clear that the difference the church can make to unhoused people in Worcester is not to allow them to camp on our property. But we can make a difference.

Last year, several members of the Social Justice committee here at First U came to me to discuss an idea that had been growing in their hearts. How could we really make a difference in the lives of low-income families trying to own a home in Worcester? The next step, these folks felt, was to help lower income people take the step from renting to owning. Owning builds wealth and security over generations.

The social justice team did some more research. We’ve helped with a Habitat for Humanity build in the past; we could do that again. Buying and rehabbing a house on our own as a church may be out of our reach. But there are organizations here in Worcester that already do this work, buying empty lots and dilapidated buildings and turning them into low-income housing, both rentals and houses to own. We met with Yvette Dyson of Common Ground Community Development Corporation to learn more about their work.

A family of four can buy a single-family home at a below-market rate thanks to the work of an area Community Development Corporation. They’ll own the home but not the land underneath it, and there’s a cap to the amount of equity they can build up over time. But still: they will build equity and create stability for themselves and future generations. The small home is beautiful, with an open, sunny kitchen, a partially finished basement, and a backyard. The owner has chosen her own lovely drawer pulls and cabinet knobs, showing off her excellent taste. She’s a single mom who has already reared two kids and sent them off into the world. Now she’s just got her youngest child at home—but she’s also rearing her two younger nephews. She has a professional job—if you met her, you might never guess that she could be the client of a housing agency. She makes just under the average salary for a woman working in Massachusetts. Yet it’s not quite enough that she could ever have bought a home on the open marketplace in our city.

People who face housing insecurity are not all the same. Some of them are facing personal crises that have almost completely alienated them from human society. Others are your colleagues, friends, and family members. There are people who sleep out of doors, who are often coping with addiction or untreated mental illness. There are people living in emergency shelters. If they’re staying somewhere like Abby’s House, IHN, or Friendly House, they are following rules about behavior, substance use, curfew, and self-improvement. There are people living in subsidized housing, where they will pay a set percentage of their income for rent for as long as they live in the apartment. The apartments at Great Brook Valley are like this. But the waitlist for those apartments is long; in the meantime, individuals and families may live in terrible circumstances, apartments with rats, or without a stove, or even without heat. Families with a little more income may be paying market rate somewhere that they can’t afford. They may be living with family or friends. Workforce housing, which serves people living just above poverty, or CDC apartments, serving people making a percentage of the median income, may allow these families to live in safe, warm, clean housing at an affordable rate. Then there’s market rate housing, affordable if rent or a mortgage plus utilities equals 30% of a family’s income or less. You know from your own experience that “market rate” covers a lot, from a studio apartment downtown, to one layer of a three-decker, to a single-family home of any size you can afford. All the usual things contribute: family education and wealth, mental health, being able-bodied, and even the greater generational wealth possessed by white people than by people of color in America. These people, all of them, from people sleeping in the church garden to people buying a land grant home, are our neighbors. We are called to love our neighbors. There are religious reasons for this.

In Judaism, the faithful obey a commandment to give to those in need. The word for this, “tzedakah,” is perhaps better translated as “justice” than “charity.” Giving is not an act of noblesse oblige or a boon handed down from on high. It is humanity’s responsibility to help make the world more just. It is our part of repairing the world.

Almsgiving, or zakat, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims who are healthy and who are not poor themselves are expected to give. The community is a very important concept in Islam. Zakat is one way Muslims take care of the community.

In the Christian gospels, Jesus has quite a bit to say about wealth and poverty. Although you wouldn’t know it from our contemporary debates in America, Jesus talks more about money than about marriage, bearing children or freedom. Jesus praises the small gift of the poor widow. He advises a rich young man that he must give all his wealth away to the poor in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. And in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus equated feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned to helping him, the beloved rabbi. “These people are me,” Jesus seems to be saying. “These people are all of us.” “If there is someone you would bring in from the cold, then bring everyone in.” These are hard teachings. Our spiritual masters call us to hard work.

But the one that sticks with me today is the injunction repeated again and again in the Hebrew Bible: care for the widow and the orphan, and care for the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. In other words, don’t care for the powerless out of a sense of charity, or noblesse oblige, or even to discharge a duty. Care for them because you could be them. And care for them because caring for them is better for you.

But what if the religious, charitable reason doesn’t move you? Why else should we care for our neighbor who faces housing insecurity? Well, it turns out that it is cheaper for American taxpayers simply to house unhoused people and make it possible for families to live in safe and affordable housing, than it is to leave people to live outdoors and in unsafe housing. People without safe housing cost society more, in emergency room visits, in treatment for preventable conditions, in foster care, and in criminal justice. When people have adequate housing, their health is better, they are less susceptible to addiction, they can care for their children, and they can follow the law. It is cheaper for the American taxpayer to provide housing than not to. It requires us to set our moral qualms aside, to give up wondering whether someone is worthy of assistance or not. I listened to a podcast about housing in California, which has the nation’s highest rate of homelessness. The podcaster asked a very journalistic question to a housing activist: “What would you say to someone who wonders why a homeless woman gets to live in Berkley for almost nothing when rents are so high?” And the activist said right back: “She hasn’t paid nothing. She’s paid 20 years of living on the streets. If someone’s jealous of her apartment, they could try to walk the road she’s walked and see if they can do it.”

Turning our attention and care toward housing quickly raises another question: why is housing so expensive, and what can we do about it? The team from our Social Justice committee is continuing to explore options and possibilities for our church. We also come together to support IHN, Worcester’s family homeless shelter.

If you live in Worcester, you can vote in the city elections on November 2. Worcester needs a variety of housing options to serve all of its residents, from single-family homes to market-rate apartments, to income-dependent apartments and home ownership opportunities, to federally funded housing developments, to emergency housing, to homeless shelters. We need to upgrade decrepit triple-deckers that no one should have to live in—or more accurately, we need to improve our housing stock so that apartments with rodents, apartments without working stoves, and apartments even without heat are not the only option for low-income renters. We are lucky to live in a city that already boasts an integrated mix of single-family and multi-family dwellings. We have a built environment that is ripe for upgrade and investment. It benefits all of us to see abandoned and derelict buildings turned into housing, for everyone from young professionals to families with kids to working families who need a little support with rent or homeownership. I encourage you to vote for candidates who support adequate housing for our growing city. Over 200,000 people now live in Worcester—we need a city that is hospitable to all.

Our covenant has been guiding my preaching this fall: how we worship, how we love the truth, how we know the Spirit, and—this morning—how we serve all. “All” is a lot of people; but as a church, we can turn toward some part of the “all” and serve them. We have a long history of working to support unhoused people in our community. The spirit flows through this work and builds up well-being throughout our city. May everyone know the safety of home. I love you all. Amen.