Thursday, December 17, 2009

To Catholic Charities: "What Would Jesus Do?"

Last month, I talked to my friend Eric Sheptock, the homeless - homeless advocate whose story I began to tell back in April.  After catching up, we talked about DC's same-sex marriage amendment that passed its second vote in the DC Council just two days ago.  I'd asked his permission to repost his literal, "Man on the Street" perspectives on the amendment, Catholic Charities, homelessness and the politics of it all in DC.  But procrastinator that I am - I didn't keep my word (Sorry Eric!).

Now that the 30-day clock is ticking for Congress to sign-off on the amendment and make it law - or not, I thought I'd share a little history from someone who will be personally affected if Catholic Charities decides NOT to do what Jesus would.

Catholic Charities Pimps DC Council Again, This Time Over Gay Marriage
By Erick Sheptock
(Posted November 13, 2009)  

What do a Catholic Charities homeless shelter and gay marriage have in common? Some would venture to guess that gay men want the right to identify as women and sleep in female shelters and that butch lesbians want the right to sleep in male shelters. That would be a very well-informed guess. I've witnessed gay men checking into female shelters, though I've yet to see a butch lesbian check into a male shelter. Such rights exist in DC homeless shelters already.

However, there is a new and strange twist (no pun intended) to the fight for gay rights. I received the news over dinner last night (before it even hit the airwaves) that Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC is considering the possibility of not doing any more business with the city of Washington if the gay marriage bill is passed. Being that the news has hit the airwaves at this point and you can get the story by going on-line, I'll take some time to give you a little of the background on relations between Catholic Charities and DC Government as well as the low-down on the mayor -- the parts of the story that the media won't tell you.

In March I did a blog post about several shelters having been threatened. (See below where I've re-posted it.) It was believed by the homeless community at that time that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty wanted to close ALL DC homeless shelters before leaving office in January of 2011. Then, the mayor was heard suggesting that homeless people who are not from DC go back to where they came from. (You can read about that in my September post entitled: "DC Mayor Tries To Rid City of Homeless".) In lieu of all of the reasons that the mayor has given the homeless to think that he wants them to just get out of town, it behooves the mayor to proactively prove otherwise. No matter how many layers of authority and contracts lie between the mayor and those who actually close the shelters, the mayor will still be implicated in the closure. He is still ultimately responsible. It is, therefore, in Mayor Fenty's best interest to actively prevent any shelter closures, especially at this time of year. He must use every weapon in his arsenal to come to the rescue of DC's homeless. Failure is not an option. Even if Catholic Charities shuts down all city operations, the mayor will be who everyone looks to for answers.

Catholic Charities is a different story altogether. Some believe that Catholic Charities is in dire straights and is using the gay marriage bill to suck more money out of the city. But before I explain the correlation between the gay marriage bill and the homeless shelters, I'll explain how Catholic charities likes to pimp the city.

The news came out on September 28th of this year that $12 million would be slashed from DC Government's Homeless Services budget. All homeless service providers were, in turn, ordered to cut 30% from their budget for FY 2010. Catholic Charities representatives attended a hearing in front of DC Councilman Tommy Wells on October 5th and stated that they could not continue to operate with one-third of their budget having been slashed. They threatened to shut down all of their city shelters, which would have resulted in the loss of about 2,000 shelter beds. The city scrambled to find the funds to keep the shelters open. Within 3 days the mayor found $11 million and the shelters were saved. He thereby averted a lot of major lawsuits due to hypothermia deaths.

However, this showed Catholic Charities that they are in a position to do a power play on the city. If this latest development is any indication, Catholic Charities is not going to let the city forget that they -- and not the city government -- hold the cards when it comes to social services in the city. When I referred to Catholic Charities as having pimped the city during conversations in October, it was blown off as being nothing but hype. In the articles about this latest move, various council members have weighed in on this issue of being pimped by Catholic Charities. It's too obvious to ignore at this point. I told you so.

The story goes like this:

The DC Council has been working on a gay marriage bill, which they expect to pass next month. While the bill makes certain exemptions for religious organizations, it doesn't make exemptions for businesses. Churches don't have to perform gay marriages or allow their space to be used for gay marriages. However, businesses are not allowed to discriminate against gays in any way, shape, form or fashion. They must serve gay patrons and must extend employee benefits to the gay partners of their employees. Catholic Charities, being a non-profit, is an uncanny marriage of the two -- a church and a business. They seek to assert their religious beliefs as reasons for them not to have to abide by the gay marriage bill as it pertains to businesses. They also claim that the increased cost of employee benefits justifies them opting out of city contracts due to the increased cost of those benefits having not been figured into the contracts at the time of the signing. Catholic charities is seriously considering not doing business with the city any more. If they were to make good on this threat, thousands of DC's most vulnerable citizens would suffer. That makes it rather selfish of Catholic charities to opt out of their city contracts. (As a quick aside, I must say that I told the person who first informed me of this situation with Catholic Charities that I feel obligated to remain a homeless advocate, in spite of me not getting paid for it, and that my reason is that I'd be letting a lot of people who look up to me down if I were to quit now.)

Let's also bear in mind that Catholic Charities receives city funding. This alone obligates them to lay aside any religious beliefs and to continue to deliver services -- secularly, as a non-profit and not as a church. My statement is not without precedent, that precedent having been set in the Central Union Mission (CUM) case. Central Union Mission sought to move to the historic and city-owned Gales School. With CUM being Christian-based, they were told that they could not acquire the Gales School unless they lifted the religious requirements. That is to say that they couldn't make anyone pray or attend chapel services as a requirement for residing at the shelter. Neither could they make or enforce any other religious policies such as not allowing people to smoke cigarettes. CUM is still bargaining with the city for the Gales School; but, they know full well that they must lighten up on the religious requirements in order for this deal to move forward. With Catholic charities receiving city funds, they can expect the same type of treatment.

The crux of the issue is whether Catholic Charities is more of a church or more of a business. (I can't help but think of a related ethnic joke.) Should they be exempt from honoring the gay rights law due to being a religious organization or be obligated to obey such a law due to them being a business and receiving city funding?????

While people ponder that question, I'd like to throw a possible solution out there. There has been conversation between homeless advocates and DC Government about the homeless community running the shelters. This too is not without precedent. The CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) Shelter in downtown DC is run by homeless people. No one gets paid to work there. The shelter runs entirely on donations, with the building being owned by the city. The building was actually wrested from the Reagan administration by homeless people who were operating under the leadership of Mitch Snyder.

This conversation needs to be picked up and become a bit more serious. Furthermore, the city should actually pay the homeless to run the shelters. They should transfer the money that they would've given to Catholic Charities to the homeless who would run the shelters. The homeless would be willing to run the shelters with the reduced budget that Catholic Charities cried about in October. Furthermore, it would serve to empower the homeless -- to instill in them a can-do attitude. This alone would lead to a substantial decrease in homelessness. Just something to think about.


For more of Eric's thoughts on this, here's a link to his most recent post:  On the Clock with Eric Sheptock: Have a Heart For the Homeless -- Raising Awareness on a Social Justice Issue


Cinie said...

Deb, I noted this story after I read a WaPo article about it in my "Got Balls?" post the other day. Even without the back story it didn't seem to me like a very charitable thing to do. The WaPo piece doesn't really identify the Catholic Charities as the offending party, if memory serves, but the Archdiocese. Not sure if that's splitting hairs on my part though.

ea said...

This story does nothing to improve my opinion of organized religion.

I will just note that smoking restriction is not a matter of religion, but public health (while acknowledging that LDS has some tenet against it, I think).

Deb said...

Cin...I read it, which reminded me I'd not posted Eric's - BEFORE the second vote as I'd planned. Since Congress has the final say, I went ahead and put it up.

I'd been following this fight since before I left (and YES! there is a draft from way back then questioning why all these Black pastors from PG & Montgomery County MD were descending on DC to fight an issue that had not a DAMNED thing to do with them - even though they're just a stone's throw away!).

Not charitable at all - neither is the way a lot of shelters are run. While WaPo didn't mention Catholic Charities, they run (and shut down at will) almost all of the shelters in the District. From Eric's blog:

"The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) is contracted under DC Government to provide homeless services to the District. Catholic Charities is subcontracted under TCP to provide the majority of the homeless services."

A little hair-splitting I think - Catholic Charities operates under the auspices of the Archdiocese.

My "little brother" may be homeless with little book-learnin' but, he's got plenty of life-learnin' - and he KNOWS his DC homeless issues! :-) He and some other homeless guys are party to an ACLU suit against Fenty and the District for the closing of (I believe)the Franklin shelter. Check out his blog sometime, you'll see what I mean!

ea...Mine either, but it is what it is isn't it?

Regarding the smoking-as-religion thing? It may not be for other "organized religion," but for the homeless men seeking shelter/assistance from CUM, it is a matter of religion.

CUM (not far from my DC apartment when I was in school) runs a Spriritual Transformation Program for their clients in which "all the sins of the world" are dealt with - to include smoking. Here's a quote from the site: "By following God's guidance through the STP, Donald has also become free from his chain-smoking addiction and reconnected with his family, who attended his graduation from the STP in December 2005."

The "heart" of the STP's work is " continue loving, serving, and assisting men to become more whole in
Christ—spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally."

And isn't it always really MAN who ultimately decides what's "religious" and what's not? Christians say one thing, Jews another, Muslims another, practioners of Vodun and Santeria another, Buddhists, yet another and on and on?

Po-ta-to, po-tah-to, I always say.

Cinie said...

Wasn't calling you out, or tootin' my horn, or questioning anybody's expertise; just called myself making a co-signing observation.

Deb said...

That's how I took it, Cin?? Like that, and just wanting to chat about yet another thing I am passionate about.

Cinie said...

Don't pay me no mind, Deb. I always get overly sensitive this time of year.

Deb said...

No problem, Cin. So do I - for a lot of reasons.

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