Legal dispute in Texas spotlights the critical role religion plays in responding to homelessness

Written by William C. Duncan

April 16, 2021

Robert is a formerly homeless man who lives in Dallas. During his time on the streets, he used and sold drugs, but he has now experienced a religious conversion and is focused on helping others in a similar situation. He credits OurCalling, a religious charity in Dallas County, with providing him the help he needed to turn things around. He contrasted their help with that of other charities that only provide financial assistance. OurCalling is more impactful, he believes, because of its religious approach.

OurCalling has recently been in the news because a city council decision threatens to limit its ability to conduct its ministry in emergency conditions. OurCalling is a church and not a shelter, but in severe weather after shelters and other accommodations are full, it remains open full time so people are not sent out into dangerous conditions.

However, the city council recently decided that temporary shelters cannot operate in the portion of downtown Dallas in which OurCalling is located. As the attorneys representing the ministry explain, this implicates the religious freedom of the church:

OurCalling’s religious beliefs require it to keep its doors open as a last resort during emergencies. Its faith does not allow it to close its doors during emergency circumstances (such as freezing weather) and send the people it serves out into the cold to risk frostbite, hypothermia, or even death while bidding them to “go in peace; keep warm and well fed.” [James 2:15-17 NIV]

The First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom public interest litigation firm, is working to ensure OurCalling can continue its work, and past experience suggests the city will be accommodating.

This situation highlights the crucial work of religious nonprofits in helping homeless people. As OurCalling noted in its letter to the city: “During the historic February 2021 snowstorm, OurCalling staffed the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, providing shelter to over 1000 people.”

A news story from 2017 describes a Baylor University study of 11 U.S. cities, which found that “[r]eligious organizations provide more than half the emergency shelter beds for homeless people in major cities across the country.” The story noted:  

Researchers also estimated there was a three-year total of $119 million in taxpayer savings connected to faith-based organizations that provided transitional housing programs in those cities, which provide longer lengths of stay and include mentoring and rehabilitation. “Certainly there is a value to providing emergency shelter beds in terms of everything from the downtown business community to health concerns,” said report co-author William Wubbenhorst. “But the real value is the degree to which organizations bring about transformation in individuals.”

The study only looked at “groups such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and rescue missions and not houses of worship, some of which also provide shelter for the homeless.” So, the impact of religious organizations on alleviating homelessness could be even greater.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness says that “[f]aith-based organizations serve as the backbone of the emergency shelter system in this country.” In fact, they believe “significantly fewer households experiencing homelessness would be served and more would remain in crisis without faith-based organizations, and homelessness cannot be ended without their efforts.”

The alliance notes that in addition to providing shelters, religious charities also help with permanent housing, provide critical funding, and recruit volunteers. As an example, earlier this year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated $3.3 million to help with homeless initiatives in the state of Utah.

OurCalling illustrates the scope of services that religious charities can provide. When the ministry becomes aware of an encampment of homeless people or an individual on the streets, it seeks out those in need to make a connection. At its facility, OurCalling offers “worship services, Bible studies, substance abuse recovery programs, peer group meetings for men and women, one-on-one mentorship and ministry, laundry services, showers, clothing, and meals.” It also publishes a small directory of services that individuals can share when they meet someone who is homeless.

As Robert’s experience, noted above, makes clear, religious charities provide more than tangible resources. As OurCalling describes itself:

We are a team of volunteers motivated by the love of Christ to search in every corner of the city for the lost and needy and offer them true friendship and meaningful support. We build long-term relationships with friends on the street, guiding them to a relationship with Jesus Christ that will help them to realize their worth and inspire them to invest in their lives.

This unique motivation and inclusion of individual transformation in their work differentiates religious charities from the important work done by government agencies and secular charities. Ensuring room for that type of work is one of the reasons religious freedom protections are so important.

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