Empty Beds In Homeless Shelter
Empty Beds In Homeless Shelter
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

The Hillsdale of Homeless Shelters

Hillsdale College in Michigan is honored by conservatives and disliked by liberals for many reasons, but among them is its refusal of any government aid since the 1980s. No federally funded research grants for professors. No Pell Grants or other government dollars for students.

Hillsdale is loud and proud regarding the reasons for its stance: “Our independence allows us to maintain the integrity of our classical liberal arts curriculum, and to remain true to our founding mission of providing an education to ‘all persons who wish, irrespective of nationality, color, or sex.’”

As a journalist I’ve seen how many Christian groups fighting homelessness also turn down government money, but even those that do so often rely on participants using SNAP cards — aka food stamps — and other federal payments such as SSI (supplemental security income). Until recently, I didn’t know of any programs pursuing the radical notion that clients capable of working should give up their SNAP benefits not only when they earn enough to become ineligible but while they are still eligible. 

That’s just what Watered Gardens in Joplin, Missouri, proposes. James and Marsha Whitford started Watered Gardens in 2000. The name comes from chapter 58 of Isaiah: “The Lord will guide you continually…. You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” At first glance the website’s statistical summary of last year’s efforts is like that of many other shelters: “29,437 needs met.” But next to it is an unusual stat — “70% needs earned” — and one even rarer: “46,470 pounds earned” (emphasis added).

The Watered Gardens philosophy is that all who are capable of work should earn their room and board, not be given it. James Whitford previously worked as a physical therapist who specialized in wound therapy. He brings that training to his ministry’s moral therapy: “As a wound care specialist with a decade of practice, I know that simply covering a serious wound with a mere bandage can complicate the problem, resulting in a deeper infection or an abscess.”

He’s right. A roof over a person’s head is just a big Band-Aid unless it comes with relationship (every person is meant to be with another) and redemption (every person is meant to be with God). Sometimes, as Whitford notes in this book, patients who need painful moments to bring about healing call their physical therapists “physical terrorists.” Whitford pushes residents to be all they can be, and they don’t want to disappoint him.

Those who have become dependent on SNAP benefits don’t like giving them up, but a wall at Watered Gardens alongside a coffee pot displays the 43 SNAP cards residents have voluntarily turned over. Whitford doesn’t know what’s happened to 26 of the people who once relied on those cards, but he has information on 17. Three have fallen back into SNAP, four have died, and 10 have stayed independent. 

My October 14 column in Fix Homelessness was about one of those independents, Barry Meyer, and I plan to write about others. You might remember Meyer saying that in 2018 he was “working, doing good, thinking, ‘I qualify [for free meals] by government standards but don’t really need ‘em.’ I’d rag on people that did what I was doing: “Why are you taking advantage? Do it on your own.” I was thinking, “Man, you’re a hypocrite, ragging on people for doing something you’re doing.”  So Meyer handed over his SNAP Card to Whitford, trusting in “God’s providing.”

Will other shelters take on the challenge of turning down government money and suggesting to clients that they do the same? Whitford is trying to take the Watered Gardens way nationwide by developing a True Charity Initiative. Some say higher education in the U.S. is a hopeless mess and others say the same about typical homeless shelters — but let’s not underestimate American ingenuity.

As Christmas beckons I still believe in God’s merciful nature and hope for reformation, so I follow with interest Hillsdale’s conservative and Joplin’s Christian experiments. Let’s give Whitford the last words: “There has never been so important a moment in our history for the Church to be both a voice and a force for reform, to provide just and effective alternatives to state welfare, to empower and ennoble the poor, and to take up again the mantle of true and effective charity.”

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.