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Better Together

Better Together

Looming high above busy Broadway Avenue in downtown Denver stands a historic mansion that until recently was rapidly losing the grandeur of its youth. Once a pristine residence, years of neglect resulted in the brick Victorian’s slow conversion into a neighborhood eyesore and a hotbed for drugs, violence, and other illicit activities.

Providence Network – Dry Bones Transformation Home

But when Derek Kuykendall stumbled across the property, all he saw was opportunity. As executive director of Providence Network, a faith-based transitional housing organization, he believes in redemption stories. Through a series of remarkable events, Providence Network purchased the home with plans to rehabilitate it for men and women rebuilding their lives.
But they did not go at it alone. Kuykendall desired to do more than expand the boundaries of his organization.
“Our friends Matt and Nikki Wallace lead Dry Bones, an organization serving Denver’s homeless street youth community,” Kuykendall shared with me while we toured the property. “Together, we began to dream about what it might look like if we brought multiple organizations together under one roof.”
Providence Network didn’t know much about youth homelessness. Dry Bones didn’t know much about transitional housing. But they’re now learning from each other as they serve one of Denver’s most vulnerable populations in this restored mansion.
In this flophouse-turned-home, 12 formerly homeless youth will move in when the property rehab concludes in September. In this home, these youth will live in community with six staff members, a team hailing from both organizations. To further support their residents, they’ll partner with Purple Door, a non-profit coffee shop and roastery focused on employing and job training the at-risk kids who live here.
Together, these three faith-based organizations will work to leverage each other’s respective strengths. Together, they will serve these 12 residents better together than they ever could have apart. This joint venture is a picture of institutional humility, each organization recognizing its own strengths and limitations.
“At the Dry Bones fundraising banquet, Matt Wallace invited me to share about Providence Network. He welcomed me up, lauding all the great things about my organization,” Kuykendall said. “Anyone that works for a nonprofit knows how crazy that is. He invited me, the executive director of a “competing” organization, to share about our work at their gala. That just isn’t normal. It doesn’t happen.”

Matt Wallace and Derek Kuykendall

Last week, I  toured the mansion with Derek Kuykendall. With each step, I grew increasingly excited. Derek was right. What was happening under this roof was entirely abnormal. It was remarkable. But I began to wonder what might be possible if this spirit of collaboration became  normal. What might happen happen to our communities–and to us–if this sort of partnership wasn’t surprising?
Nonprofits love to talk about our commitment to partnership and collaboration. But in practice, we’re really bad at looking beyond our organizational boundaries. There are very few incentives to invest outside our walls. But big problems–like addressing youth homelessness in a city like Denver–will require we do so.
For Christians, doing so should be assumed. Our faith demands concern ourselves with the Kingdom, not our little kingdoms. And Jesus gave up all fame and fortune and notoriety on behalf of others. Our organizations should do the same. And in an old mansion in Denver, this hope and promise comes closer to opening its doors.

Golden Voices and White Lies

Golden Voices and White Lies

Ted Williams and Jeffrey Hillman dominated headlines. In fact, I’d wager they were the two biggest homelessness stories of 2011 and 2012, respectively. TV, newspapers and radio stations across the country celebrated them. But now years beyond these headlines, only one of these two men has had a happy ending.
You remember Ted Williams. He’s the “man with the golden voice.” A passerby captured a stirring video of Williams on a street corner that instantly became Facebook share-candy. Williams’ rich baritone voice delighted millions of hearts. We learned he used to be a top-ranking DJ in Columbus before a crack cocaine addiction led him to a life on the streets for over seventeen years. Two days after his YouTube discovery, Williams was chatting it up with Matt Lauer on the Today Show and on his way to stardom.

A few months later, a different passerby captured an equally powerful moment. The picture showed New York City police officer, Larry Deprimo, fitting Jeffrey Hillman with a pair of brand new Sketchers winter boots. DePrimo saw Hillman hunched on the ground, cold and barefoot. He responded heroically and America latched on.

Police officer, Larry DePrimo, gives shoes to Jeffrey Hillman (source: NPR / NYPD)

Police officer, Larry DePrimo, gives shoes to Jeffrey Hillman (source: NPR / NYPD)

The stories share much in common. At the time of their fame, both Williams and Hillman panhandled to make a living. Both dealt with serious substance abuse problems. Both were Army veterans. Both were born in New York City in 1957. And both made headlines because of an encounter with a Good Samaritan.
But today, their stories could not be more different. Shortly after Hillman’s barefoot meeting with the police officer, reporters discovered he was shoeless again. And Hillman wasn’t happy about his celebrity-status. “I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?” he asked. “I want a piece of the pie.”
More recently, CBS News uncovered Hillman wasn’t actually homeless or shoeless. And the New York Post spotted him carrying a wad of cash after panhandling from the streets of Midtown Manhattan with a sign saying, “HOMELESS.” Hillman still goes shoeless—it’s better for panhandling business—despite owning thirty pairs of shoes.
Hillman’s fortunes have quickly changed. The police chief lamented the NYPD has many “people who try to scam us.” Recent articles and interrogating videos indicate today’s sentiment: Hillman has lost any public goodwill he once had. From an object of national compassion to a gutless con man in less than a year.
Today’s news about Ted Williams could not be more different. Last weekend his speaking tour took him to Wilmington, Ohio, where he shared inspirational stories from his memoir, A Golden Voice. His award-winning book is subtitled “How Faith, Hard Work, and Humility Brought Me from the Streets to Salvation.” In it, he shares his journey with God, his battles with addictions and his current work.
Ted Williams (source: Google Images)

Ted Williams (source: Google Images)

When he’s not speaking about his book, Williams works for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and other companies doing audio voiceovers. Oh, and when he’s not working or sharing his inspiring story, he is volunteering at homeless shelters or donating money through his charitable foundation.
The sentimentality chasm between Hillman and Williams grows farther apart with each passing day. Hillman approaches near villain status, while Williams is a certifiable rags-to-riches success story. These are complex situations. And it’s easy to armchair quarterback the reasons why Williams made it and Hillman hasn’t. How should aspiring Good Samaritans respond?
We can start by mourning for the pain both of these men experienced, some past and some present. And, we can seek to elevate the gifts and skills of the vulnerable. We met Williams because of his abilities. We met Hillman because of his desperation. In it all, we can keep the “ultimate Samaritan’s” advice to love our neighbors boldly, while acting “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Panhandling Pitfalls

It was a late, humid Pennsylvania night. I walked down the city street which led to my home. In the distance, I heard the thump-thump of bass beats, resounding loudly from tire-sized speakers. The streetlights, fashioned like historic lanterns, illuminated the sidewalk as I paced home. As I approached my house, a man mirrored my quick steps from the opposite direction. The closer he got, the clearer it became he was walking toward me.
His voice broke the rhythm of the distant bass music. “Hey man. Hold on one second,” he stated strongly.
I nodded my head in his direction, but sidestepped him, keeping my walk in-gear. It was late, my home was just around the corner, and I was in no mood for a streetside conversation. I hoped my head nod and quickened pace would convey my intent. It usually did the trick. But not that night. Not for this guy. I heard him circle and begin following me. His first foray to stop me did not work, but his second stopped me immediately, causing the gravel beneath my shoes to skid as I put on the brakes.
“You ignoring me is exactly what you people do,” he shared. “Don’t walk past me just because I’m black.”
His comments instantly ratcheted up the conversational intensity. I spun around and explained that skin color had nothing to do with my disinterest in a sidewalk soirée. It had everything to do with my fatigue and my longing to be home. Even still, I was on the defensive, knowing I had been less polite than I ought to be.
Ignoring my defense, he launched into his story: He had come to the city to visit his son. He came by bicycle, but it had been confiscated by the police. He had exhausted other transportation options and needed to get home to take care of his other kids. His only option was the last-chance bus which left the station in 30 minutes. The cost of the fare? $16.
Without asking too many questions, I pulled out my wallet and thumbed through my cash till I found a crisp $20 bill. I handed it to him, wished him well, and continued home to finish my journey: Mission accomplished.

(video expounding on these questions from my friends at Urban Entry)

As it turns out, this was the first of many times I would run into this same guy on the street. He always used the same attention-grabbing lines and he relied on the same stories to solicit funding for his train ticket. In subsequent encounters, I let him know that he had already used his story with me, but that did not stop him from finding other passersby who would guiltily foot his fictitious bill. Every time I watched an unsuspecting pedestrian be accosted by this routine, my sheepishness swelled. My response had been wrong in every way. Let me expound on the ways:

  1. I dismissed his humanity: When our paths crossed, I avoided eye contact, did not ask for his name and pretended I didn’t hear him. In his book, Under the Overpass, a memoir of his volitional decision to spend a year living with the homeless on the streets, Mike Yankoski articulated a simple starting point for interacting with panhandlers and homeless people. “Looking people in the eyes can restore the humanity in homeless people.”
  2. I gave cash: “Giving cash to someone in need is the least helpful and most temporary solution, and should only be a last resort,” said Andy Bales, director at Union Rescue Mission, in a recent article in Christianity Today. Handing out cash to someone on the street or out the car window is almost always a bad idea. It undermines the work of local ministries and city programs. It enables recipients to feed destructive habits like drugs and alcohol. And, as Andy articulates, those truly in desperate need are very rarely the folks you see asking for money on the streets.
  3. I made a rash decision: I allowed an emotional story, personal guilt, and my own hastiness to cloud my judgment. Had I talked with him for more than a minute, I would have found the holes in his story. If I hadn’t been in a hurry, I could have shared that I support the local shelter and could have given him directions so that he could have a place to rest his head for the night. Simply taking more time would have defused the tension in the situation.
It’s a common conversation among my friends: How should you respond to the gal asking for money on the street corner? Maybe you can learn from my travails how not to respond and use my failure to equip you to respond with grace, thoughtfulness and clarity.