Church's bold move to help the homeless has big impact on the government, report finds

Posted July 21

What is the true worth of a church? Sure, there's the intrinsic value that a worship community brings to parishioners, but what about the more definitive programs and financial benefits that churches bring to their communities?

Such prospects can sometimes be difficult to figure and analyze, though houses of worship are generally known for doing good works throughout their communities and beyond, with many churches funding mission efforts in lands far from their physical locations.

With that in mind, it may be concluded that the plethora of churches do far more than offer up individual and corporate spiritual fulfilment.

For instance, the Guardian recently profiled the Highway of Holiness Church congregation in Tottenham, England — a church that made an intentional decision seven years ago to open a homeless shelter called the Highway House.

After opening its doors in 2009, the Highway House became a place where individuals who couldn't secure housing through local charities could find refuge. Today, the home houses 50 people, with a total of 750 individuals having come through its doors to receive support since it opened.

It's a project that began when parishioners — who, themselves are largely low-income — began giving between 10 and 20 percent of their incomes to help fund the homeless outreach, the Guardian reported.

"We help those who have fallen on difficult times in their lives and need a helping hand," reads a description on the Highway House website. "Many have misused alcohol and drugs and have lost contact with their families and friends. We work to help them rebuild their lives, rebuild their confidence and rebuild themselves."

It's an effort that has led the University of East London's Institute for Health and Human Development to conclude in a recent report that, after seven years of operating its homeless efforts, Highway House is bringing 5-8 euros back into society for every 1 euro invested in the project.

Marcello Bertotti, a researcher and the co-author of the institute's report, concluded that the Highway House "not only saves people's lives, but also saves considerable resources to the public purse."

The Guardian noted that the effort saves the local government quite a bit of money. On the practical side, 110,000 euros per year are saved on accommodations, with an additional 92,000 euros saved on unemployment benefits.

Additionally, there's even an estimated 3,500 euros saved when it comes to crime reduction and 73,000 euros for health services. But it doesn't end there.

"It is also important to recognise that beyond these numbers, Highway House provides life-changing support for homeless people who have not received help through more established statutory support organizations," Bertotti added. "In this sense, Highway House caters for one of the most marginalised groups within the homeless population."

The Rev. Alex Gyasi, pastor of Highway of Holiness Church, told the Guardian that police and local hospitals refer people to the shelter and that, despite the successes, there are challenges. The individuals aren't vetted before they arrive, so there can often be some pretty dire challenges.

"We get burglars, rapists and murderers," Gyasi said. "It’s not smooth sailing: we do get violence."

But Gyasi, who is invigorated by the project's successes, is looking to expand the Highway House, scouting for a new location that can accommodate even more people. The goal is to provide additional job training and other services that will help people get back on their feet.

Questions about the worth of each church congregation are nothing new, though calculating the costs and benefits can sometimes be a difficult task.

It's a task that Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania undertook a few years back, concluding that First Baptist Church in Philadelphia contributed $6,090,032 to its local community — a sum that was six times its annual budget.

The debate, of course, is whether churches offer more value to communities than the "cost" of their tax-exempt status, with atheist activist groups routinely taking issue with the way in which the tax code handles religious issues.

Either way, the Highway House appears to be giving back quite a bit, offering up a model that other houses of worship can potentially follow.

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