I love baseball. Imagine how I felt, then, when I got the first real job of my adult life just down the street from Wrigley Field.
My title was “housing and employment case manager” at a tiny homeless shelter shoehorned into a church basement. The church was built mid-20th century without air conditioning, and when I started there in 2003, there was still no air conditioning. In the summertime, with all the windows open and sweating through my T-shirt, I’d sit at my desk and listen to the fans at Wrigley going nuts whenever the Cubbies parked one out onto Waveland Avenue.
Being the housing and employment case manager meant that I conducted intake assessments with brand-new residents of the shelter. Intakes are a bombardment of personal questions ranging from “Name?” to “Have you ever tried to kill yourself?” At the end of an intake, which usually took around 45 minutes, I knew nearly every personal fact about the person sitting in front of me.
Thirteen years later, I’m still in the business, as it were. I direct a shelter for homeless families in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And while the questions asked at intakes have hardly changed over the years, there has been a major shift in the way the church addresses the poor and homeless.
“Relational ministry,” “the blessing of presence” -- I think there are a few other terms for it. But whatever the term, it’s an idea counter to the style of ministry to the poor and homeless that previously pervaded the church. (The stereotypical image of the old style is a preacher haranguing a roomful of destitute homeless men who patiently endure the sermon so they can get something to eat.)
Relational ministry, as I understand it, is the giving of the self as opposed to the giving of one particular message or another -- treating homeless people like people and not salvation projects. From my point of view, it’s a positive change, to say the least.
But it’s a relatively sudden change. And while “being with” poor people is good -- at best, an attempt to be Christlike -- the problem is that the relational scales are unbalanced. Most homeless people lack healthy relational capital. Healthy relationships tend to be longer term, tend to flex (and not break) when challenges arise, tend to respect boundaries.
Certainly, there are relationships among people who live on the streets and in shelters, but more often than not, those are short-lived and are formed out of the survival instinct. Live on the streets long enough and I daresay you begin to expect that every relationship will vanish quickly, turn on you or encroach in ways that make you uncomfortable.
Church members doing the work of relational ministry likely already have a multilayered network of fairly healthy relationships -- friends and family, coworkers and financial advisers, doctors and dentists -- all the people in their lives who hold them fast in their privileged place in society.
The person experiencing homelessness, who likely has none of these relational layers, may feel reluctant to bond. And for one relational minister to absorb the need in the life of even one extremely poor person makes for codependency and burnout.
A few years ago, still in Chicago, I tried an experiment. At the time, I oversaw a housing program for formerly homeless adults, a program in which people who were disabled and homeless were placed in low-income studio apartments and surrounded by supportive services. Why not use the program to capitalize on the relational ministry movement within the church?
I brought in teams of volunteers from local churches, whose congregations were typically upper-middle income, for what we called “community groups.” The idea was that the volunteers and the people living in the housing programs would meet twice a month and, in so doing, begin to form low-demand, authentic relationships across socioeconomic boundaries.
To a degree, the community groups were successful. The formerly homeless people were coming in contact regularly with others who were not normally in their networks of relational support. But neither the volunteers nor the formerly homeless were able to shed the unspoken yet deeply engrained relational expectations of their respective social positions.
The volunteers couldn’t release their need to somehow change the formerly homeless people in some tangible way: “I don’t feel like I’m doing this right if I’m not teaching them how to write resumes, too.”
And the formerly homeless people couldn’t release the label of “homeless” and the behavioral expectations that come with it: “I still feel subordinate here. I’ll ask for a little money, and bus passes from time to time, too.”
These were powerful, predetermined relational templates from which neither side could fully break. The community groups were too much at once.
Back to baseball. Those who’ve read Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” are familiar with sabermetrics. As I understand it, sabermetrics is a collection of nontraditional baseball statistics that predict whether or not a ballplayer will be good for his club. As Lewis points out in “Moneyball,” it might be more useful to know how often a player scores runs than, say, his batting average. If a particular player hits a lot of singles but hardly ever crosses home plate or hardly ever drives in runs, he’s fairly useless. But if a player crosses home plate often, no matter how he gets on base -- even if he’s repeatedly nailed in the head with fastballs -- he’s got something of value for the team: come hell or high water, he scores runs.
I think the time is right for a new approach to homelessness and poverty, a sabermetrics of social services. My consistent observation is that the more numerous and diverse (and healthy) a person’s relationships are, the more likely he or she will be to overcome the circumstances of poverty. I’ve spent a lot of time asking individual homeless people about themselves and their individual problems, but hardly any time asking them about themselves in the context of others.
At the shelter I direct, we’ve just begun to formulate what we call our “relational assessment.” To my knowledge, nothing like this exists yet -- no set of in-depth questions for the people we serve about the people in their lives, no formal collection of data about their relationships, no real examination of how those relationships help or harm.
But I believe it is information that may drastically redirect the ways in which we, the social service providers and the church, could actually help people in desperate poverty escape it.
By the end of the year, in addition to our regular intake questions, we’ll formally begin asking the people we serve about themselves and the people with whom they spend time. Do you talk to your mother or father? When did you last see them? If you should be going to a doctor, are you? Do you ever talk to a pastor or rabbi or imam?
People -- rich and poor alike -- are, after all, relational entities. I believe that learning about a person’s relationships should be an initial social services sabermetric, a crucial measurement in the work of overcoming poverty and homelessness. Once we know the quantity and the quality of people’s relationships, we can help them expand and improve them.
Then I hope to use this information to help people. I predict that we’ll find, for example, that it will be a better use of time to teach job seekers networking skills instead of simply helping them write résumés.
I suspect that one of the most important things we can do is help people in homelessness and poverty establish and improve their relationships. As we do, I hope the isolation that goes hand in hand with poverty will diminish, clearing the way for the more tangible elements of relief, like employment and stable housing.
Certainly, this will take time. Unlearning a particular relational style and relearning another is hard work for anybody. But once this “sabermetrics of relationships” approach is fully in play, I think we’ll see big results. Men and women who formerly lived on the streets or in the shelters will have much more stable housing, long-term employment and better health care.
And as a bonus, with more effective relational skills at work, these men and women will be equipped in turn to help others who are struggling. Then we’ll all go nuts, cheering wildly each time one more person scores a run against poverty.