Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Watering Previously-Parched Gardens

In the last two columns I introduced you to Austin Bond and Michael Porter, two of the felons whose lives are changing in the Forge Center of Joplin, Missouri. In this column I want to give you a wider view of the program and the charity that feeds into it, Watered Gardens Ministries.

The odd name comes from chapter 58 of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Verse 10 starts with criticism of those who talk down to the poor with “the pointing of the finger,” and then gives hope to those grown weary in doing good: “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”

Those who pour themselves out can seize the promise of verse 11: “The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water.” How does that work in reality? James Whitford, with a doctorate from the University of Kansas School of Medicine, liked those verses and 24 years ago moved from rehabbing bodies to rehabbing lives.

Whitford and his wife Marsha rented a room in a Red Cross building with the goal of helping the homeless in Joplin, a city of 52,000. A church helped pay rent, with Whitford at first continuing his physical therapy gig three days a week to pay the utilities and support his family that grew to include five children. The Whitfords quickly learned that homelessness means more than being unhoused: “We had a lot of compassion and a lot of heart, but not a lot of thought behind what we were doing.”

For example, they learned that word spreads about how to get free stuff at one “helping” site, sell it, and then get more free stuff at the next. Truly charitable groups need to offer help but also take precautions against that help being abused, so the Whitfords started a Charity Tracker network that uses a computer program to learn what others are providing to each person in need.

Whitford, who combines toughness with smiles and seems a natural networker, then proceeded to create a True Charity Network that is now a national coalition of 179 nonprofits and churches that serve poor humans, including many without material and spiritual homes. They vary widely but have a common belief that “all people are created equally, in the image of God, and we ought to treat them with dignity and respect, [following] the Biblical mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

True Charity Network members agree that “the causes and nature of poverty are complex, and there are no easy answers.” Whitford last month entitled one of his articles “The Pitfalls of Housing First,” because the federal mandates at “Housing First” forbid groups from requiring sobriety or treatment for mental illness in exchange for free housing.  Whitford told of one man deep into alcoholism who three times received a set of keys without leaving behind his bottles, three times went back to the streets, and is homeless today.

Whitford uses only first names in telling that story of “Richard” and many more: “For him, Ravon, Stacy, and countless others who thought a house was the answer to their homelessness, Housing First has merely incubated deeper issues and needs that a roof and set of keys can never address.” True Charity Network members agree that “Relief (short-term aid in response to crisis), rehabilitation (restoration to a previous pre-crisis position), and development (advancement to new levels of flourishing) are all different needs that usually require different responses.”

Watered Gardens is explicitly Bible-oriented, and as such emphasizes a transition to financial independence combined with dependence on God. Those who want to learn how to combine the two should be aware of the upcoming April 3-5 “True Charity Summit” in Springfield, Missouri, that will include sessions on program design, fundraising, and innovative models, deep-dive workshops on outcomes measurement and trauma-informed care, and teaching by Whitford, the Sagamore Institute’s Amy Sherman, and others. True Charity also has events around the country, such as one coming up on May 14 in St. Mary’s, Georgia. The measure of success is change in the lives of human beings in all our complexity. We’re made after God’s image but often worship idols, including evil substances and ideologies.

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.