Clairvaux Farm Must Not Die, Part 2

I don’t want to interfere with or second guess the internal processes of Meeting Ground. I’ve been out of the loop for over a year and a half now, and I don’t know what compelled such an unfortunate decision as the one to close Clairvaux Farm. Even given Meeting Ground’s present financial crisis, which surely didn’t happen overnight, dissolving the only shelter for homeless families with children in the region is a tragedy. In announcing the closing, Meeting Ground says it has adopted a new philosophy – to end homelessness as opposed to simply “managing” it – a system into which, it says, Clairvaux Farm no longer fits. In a recent email to supporters they wrote: “Moving from Shelter to Home:  On March 1st, the Board of Directors announced the closing of Clairvaux Farm.  We want to do more than just shelter families.  We want to end homelessness, and move these families into a home.”

This is all fine. However, moving folks into their own home has always been Meeting Ground’s goal, and Clairvaux Farm has always been, from the very beginning, an indispensable part of that process, and I do mean indispensable. Closing Clairvaux Farm so suddenly and hastily, with plans underway to sell off the property, undoes years of effort to address the problem of homelessness in Cecil County, and threatens the viability of any program that would promise to “end homelessness” without offering the rapid re-housing which has been the purpose of Clairvaux Farm for over three decades.

Meeting Ground’s new emphasis on “Housing Now” / “Housing First” offers some fresh insights into ending homelessness, particularly in the lives of folks who have been homeless for a long time due to factors such as mental illness or substance abuse.  However, I fully cannot begin to understand how the closing of Clairvaux Farm helps accomplish this new mission, particularly for families with children, as Meeting Ground is saying. If there were homes readily available for anyone and all who are now or who will be homeless and money enough to purchase or rent these, then, yes, I might agree that we may no longer need communities like Clairvaux Farm. However, I suspect what is actually happening is that the leadership of Meeting Ground does not fully understand how the “Housing First” concept is meant to work, particularly in a rural setting like Cecil County. Nor, I suspect, do they understand how Meeting Ground itself has already historically implemented this concept, particularly at Clairvaux Farm.

A March 17, 2013 article in the Baltimore Sun, “Advocates say Baltimore’s plan to end homelessness is in disarray,” should be a wakeup call to what is happening in Cecil County.  The “Housing First” initiative there, known as “Journey Home,” began with high hopes in 2008. In each of the five years since, homelessness has increased dramatically in the city with individuals sleeping in shelters or on the streets numbering 4,000, up from 2,600 in 2008. Sister Helen Amos, chairwoman of the Journey Home’s Leadership Advisory Group, commented “We’ve been chipping away at the chronically homeless population through the ‘housing first’ concept, but all of that hasn’t gone as robustly as was originally envisioned, homelessness in Baltimore isn’t better today than it was five years ago.”

The nation’s capital faces a similar disappointment in its vaunted plans to “end homelessness.” In June, 2004 Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced with much fanfare the inauguration of “Homeless No More: A strategy for Ending Homelessness in Washington D.C. by 2014.” This program was based in the promise that a Continuum of Care, bringing all key service providers to the table to create a system that would end, rather than maintain, the social crisis of homelessness.

As this new initiative failed to curb unacceptable increases in homelessness in the nation’s capital, a new Mayor introduced “Housing First” in April, 2008 with the promise that bringing the homeless out of shelters and into housing where they could be provided comprehensive services to address the problems that led to their homelessness would now truly end homelessness in the nation’s capital.

Now, in 2013, after millions of dollars spent on these initiatives, homelessness, far from ending, has seen a dramatic rise in Washington. By May, 2012, the number of homeless families soared by 18% over the previous year, the third straight year of increase, while homelessness increased by 6% overall. The city’s infamous family shelter at D.C. General Hospital remains full to overflowing, crammed with 372 adults and nearly 600 children as of February, 2013.

This is not to say the either “Continuum of Care” or “Housing First” has failed.  Quite the contrary, they are important initiatives in the decades-long struggle on behalf of the homeless, based on the principle that decent, affordable housing is a right, not a privilege, as much as the right to be able to breathe. What these initiatives have failed to achieve in Baltimore, Washington and elsewhere indicates, not that they don’t work, but rather that homelessness has proven to be a larger, more deeply rooted and stubborn social problem – one that defies a simple, one-size-fits-all solution.

“Homelessness can’t be ended by ending homelessness,” as Kevin Lindamood, director of Baltimore Health Care for the Homeless, stated in the Baltimore Sun article. “We cannot lose sight that homelessness is only a symptom of poverty… homeless individuals that may be housed today will be replaced with new men, women and children…” The fact is that neither “Housing First,” nor any similar plan addresses the root causes of homelessness in our society: the inadequate supply of decent affordable housing, the growing number of persons who work full time and multiple jobs but fail to earn a living wage – the “have-nots,” persons and families living on the margins and falling through the cracks of the vanishing safety net. Finally, there is the breakdown of simple human neighborhood, “community,” a society in which all are able to house themselves in dignity by their own means even if they are far behind in the race for the good life.

In a March 12, 2013 “Delaware Voice” article in the Wilmington News Journal, Ken Smith, Executive Director of the Delaware Housing Coalition, said, “We, as a community, are responsible for the rise of homelessness over many years. If we are to understand and to address this problem, we must take a broader approach.”

Meeting Ground has historically centered its mission on this “broader approach” recognition – that a problem as complex as homelessness, with myriad causes both individual and societal in nature, affecting everyone from newborn infants to the very old, is a problem with complex causes, requiring a comprehensive understanding.  In doing this, Meeting Ground from its beginning adopted the central philosophy of “housing first.” According to the main features of the Housing First Model, as defined by , which advocates for the “Housing First” model, the most important first step to ending homelessness, particularly in families, is crisis intervention and rapid stabilization: “This [first] phase includes helping families access emergency housing or short-term transitional housing to begin to address their crisis needs.” Clairvaux Farm was established precisely as this type of rapid re-housing for homeless families on this very principal. The immediate housing was always followed by needs assessment, connection to housing resources, and the joining of a partnership with the Meeting Ground community to move into more permanent housing as quickly as possible.

But Clairvaux Farm goes much further than just to offer shelter.  The Farm is an empowering community, offering the stability of home and friendship at a time when rapid stabilization of a family is essential. In an era when shelters were defined by their provision of only the basics of a bed and meals for a limited duration of 30 – 60 days maximum with the proviso that families must leave the premises in the morning and not to return until evening, Clairvaux Farm has never in its history had any such limitations. Moreover, the Farm emphasized the importance of community as indispensable to ending homelessness for families – homeless families helping each other to end homelessness among all. Rather than relying on an all-providing hierarchy of service providers to achieve and maintain a stable home, Clairvaux Farm emphasized the building of relationships to foster the power of individuals in community. As an example, two families with limited incomes might move into the same neighborhood and share such things as a car and child care, helping each other in much the same way neighbors help each other by loaning a cup of sugar when needed. The small nuances of human community may seem minor, but learned while in housing at the Farm they have over and over provided critical solutions to permanently ending homelessness for families, achieving their independence through the empowering inter-dependence of human community.

What is the current leadership of Meeting Ground thinking? Closing Clairvaux Farm will dramatically exacerbate homelessness in Cecil County, especially because no such facility will be available to assist in implementing “Housing First” among families. Further, not having such a facility here would be akin to closing Baltimore’s new 24-hour emergency shelter which was set up as part of their “Housing First” program, or shutting down the Family General Hospital Shelter in D.C. Both these transitional programs are seen as essential to their rapid re-housing process. Why anyone would close Clairvaux Farm, which is such a critical component of “Housing First” in Cecil County, is incomprehensible.

I know that everyone at Meeting Ground cares deeply about persons and families experiencing homelessness. It’s not a lack of care or compassion that has led to the closing of the Farm. However, even caring people make mistakes. I haven’t been privy to the workings of the organization so I don’t know why the financial crisis wasn’t foreseen or what the other options to solve it might be. I only know that it’s a tragedy to close Clairvaux Farm, for homeless families with children as well as the best hopes for Meeting Ground to successfully implement their new mission to end homelessness.

However, now that Meeting Ground has announced the closing, it would be a true catastrophe to sell the property on which Clairvaux Farm is located on the open market or to land or investment speculators. Thousands of dedicated, loving persons have worked so long and hard, donating their sweat and their personal resources to build Clairvaux Farm into the amazing facility it is today. Their sacrifice and investment of faith must be honored by doing all we can to keep the Farm alive. If Meeting Ground is no longer in a position to or willing to do this, there are many others who are.

Deep Roots is a group with which I am working which is mentoring children who are or have been homeless, seeking to break the cycle of generational homelessness that traps and destroys so many of their lives. Deep Roots has approached Meeting Ground and offered to take over the program at Clairvaux Farm and keep it going, focusing on these children and their families. I am working heart and soul with them to keep Clairvaux Farm alive. If Meeting Ground accepts Deep Roots’ offer, it would save their bottom line the full expenses of the Farm’s operation and help alleviate their financial crisis, so it would be  a win-win for both Meeting Ground and for the homeless families we all care about so much. Their Board is currently considering this offer. Please hope and pray with me that this negotiation is successful so that the only shelter for homeless families in the region may not just fade away. If Clairvaux Farm is lost, another like it may not pass this way again. It is no easy task to begin and grow such programs. The investment of love required is enormous.

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