GETTING HELP IN OUR COMMUNITY
Last week, we looked at the Beyond Basic Assistance program offered by the Fort Wayne Urban League. Today, we will take a step back to discover why such programs, which are critical to so many people in our community, are also so under-funded.
A few years ago, I did a presentation for youth groups and neighborhood associations called “Setting Priorities in Our Community” in which the participants were given a list of services and amenities that were typically available in a city and they had to determine with Monopoly money which of them were the most important to them for our city. Just as in real life, there wasn’t enough money to fund everything, and again as in real life, not all of the participants had the same amount of funds to play the game. At each group of tables, each person had to tell the others what they felt was worthy to be funded, and what items would be cut out of their budget. Most people struggled to stretch their merger funds, some even tried to barter with other players to lend them money to fund additional projects they could not afford. But, what intrigued me the most was two 15-year-old guys who reached totally opposite selections even though they were demographically similar in age, gender, race, and part of town in which they lived. One boy selected Police and Public Safety as his priority; the other selected Parks and Recreation as his top choice. I asked them to explain their reasoning to the entire group.
“What good is a park if it isn’t safe?” asked the first guy.
“But, if kids don’t have someplace to go and something positive to do, then no place will be safe” replied the other boy.
From the mouths of those young people is an illustration of the dilemma that we have in our community as we set our priorities. Government agencies, nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups all have goals of wanting the best for our All America City, but often they don’t share the same priorities or financial resources. Our tax dollars help local, state and federal governmental entities provide the infrastructure that makes the mechanisms of our community work. Things like streets, traffic signals, water and sewage systems, local public safety and national defense, schools, and criminal justice take up a significant percentage of the budget, which is squeezing funding from what once was called “poor relief” or “welfare.” Most of the government dollars that funnel directly back to our local residents in benefits does so in the form of Social Security, SNAP (food stamps), and HUD programs for housing or homelessness issues. From stimulus packages to sequestered budgets, you can see that national priorities do not always mesh our local needs, and regardless of political parties, we send more money to Washington than we receive back in services.
Community organizations and faith-based groups have similar problems as they look at local priorities. Some organizations are tied to a national headquarters that dictates how their funds are allocated, but many are small independent groups that struggle to get enough money from offerings and donations just to keep their lights on. However what they lack in dollars is generally made up for by their passion for their work in our community. Most community based organizations may have a specific focus or purpose that is identified in its mission and vision statement. Often, you can tell by their name if they are concerned with a particular social service or health concern; you would expect the American Cancer Society is going to have programs or services for persons dealing with various types of cancer. Some organizations may focus on the needs of a demographic or ethnic group of people; while both the NAACP and the Fort Wayne Urban League offer programs and services to people of all races, the majority of people using these services are African American. With a name like Boys and Girls Club, you are fairly certain that they concentrate on activities for children. This clear identification of their client base makes it easier to make sure that the priorities that the organization sets are in line with the needs and priorities of the clients that they serve.
But. it can get a bit trickier with faith-based organizations. Because by their nature, most religious groups want to reach out to “everyone” but “everyone” has many different needs and priorities, so to help meet that need many faith-based groups have begun to seek funding from the same sources as other nonprofit groups. Section 104 of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the federal welfare reform law, encourages states to involve faith-based organizations as providers of government-funded support services to low income families, while protecting the religious character of the participating faith-based organizations and the religious freedom of the beneficiaries. Under this provision, it is perfectly legal for a faith-based group to impose stipulations for the assistance that they provide. Some groups will not serve unmarried couples, others might ask clients to attend a Bible study or worship service to receive financial assistance.
So as the lines are beginning to blur between the differences in faith-based groups and other nonprofit organizations, they both are becoming victims of a new problem called mission drift. When government, businesses or foundations offer grants to do specific types of programming, it is tempting for an organization to follow the money into that arena even it is not a service that they would normally perform. This explains why programs for substance abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness issues are popping up everywhere in our community.
The good news is there are more places than ever before in our community to get help when it is needed. The bad news is that often people in need waste precious time calling long lists of organizations that don’t have enough resources or staff to help. Sometimes, I see this frustration on a young mother’s face as she tells me about her crisis situation.
“They call this the City of Churches, but I’ve called them all and no one will help me,” is a complaint that I often hear.
“What about your own church family. Do they know that you are having trouble?” I ask.
“I don’t go to church” is generally the reply.
So in the words of Dr. Phil I say, “How’s that working for you?”
Getting help in this community begins with relationships. People who are familiar with specific churches or nonprofit groups know who to call and what to do to get help. Even organizations have relationships with other organizations to share information or collaborate on specific programs. These relationships keep people who are dealing with difficult situations from being reduced to a statistic. If you don’t have such a relationship with a faith-based group or nonprofit organization, there is no better time to start one then now. Get involved with our community. Join the PTA, attend community meetings in your neighborhood, become a volunteer, and find a faith based group to strengthen your spiritual life. As you do so, you will find that help that it can assist you and others in your difficult days. And, your experience can help these organizations as they set their priorities and future plans in our community.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 25 print edition.