Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Habitat for Humanity for Whom?

An interesting phenomenon is happening here in central Ohio. Over the past several years, we have been getting an influx of immigrants from all over the world, and the rate of new arrivals seems to be accelerating. The largest groups are from Latin America and Africa. But even the homeless community is growing -- much faster than the rate people are becoming homeless in our community.

In more than one setting, I've heard similar comments for why this is. Perhaps the most succinct was by a homeless guy I was chatting with when our church group served dinner at one of the shelters downtown. He said, "Columbus is a great place to be homeless -- you guys have great programs for us" He wasn't a long-time resident of city who had fallen on bad times -- he was a professional homeless guy, and he migrated here to partake of our city's generosity!

I saw a broadcast of a community meeting where the director of social services for our city said that nearly all his clients were immigrants. At the same meeting, a representitive from the urban school system said that much of the resources of his department was being applied to dealing with immigrant kids who need language and socialization assistance.

If you go to one of the Dept of Motor Vehicles agencies around our part of town, it's like going to another country. The lines are full of immigrants seeking to take driver's tests and receive Ohio driver's licenses. It used to be that I could go to the local license agency in a nearby strip mall in the mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and find almost no line. Now there are lines all through the day.

Our church has become involved in two Habitat for Humanity house builds in the past year. The project we're working on now is a partnership of six churches. Both of these houses are being built in predominately African-American neighborhoods. In fact, one was built in a neighborhood that was formed by freed slaves after the Civil War.

Sounds like great places to build a Habitat house right? Except that both houses were 'sold' to immigrant families (the homeowner buys the house via an interest-free loan for the cost of the materials -- under $200 per month). What message is it sending to the African-American community when a bunch of white folks from uptown roll into their ghetto neighborhood, build a new house and essentially give it to an immigrant family?

I met a wonderful man last week named Jim Swearingen. He has built a ministry called CityVision in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. His mission is to break the cycle of poverty in the African-American community, and he's attacking the problem through the children. He gets them jobs so they don't have to do deliveries for the drug dealers to make money. He brings in tutors to help the kids find success in school. He tries to be a positive male role model for kids who typically live in single-parent homes headed by their mother. He's getting results. His neighborhood showed the biggest decrease in crime over the past few years of any inner city area.

The immigrant families are just that -- families. They come as a family group, and have strong bonds in their transplanted community. They are often well educated (the father of the family we're building the house for now is a physician). Certainly, the places they're coming from are truly bad, and we Americans have long been a place that accepts refugees. Most of the African immigrants are Muslim, and are able to come here and immediately plug into a community of other immigrants who share their faith and culture.

But it's gotten to the point where it's as though a beacon has been lit up in Columbus, signalling from people all over the world that our city has a bounty of wealth that we're just giving away to all that come.

So I'll say it: I don't think Habitat for Humanity should be building any more homes in our city for immigrant families. Instead, I think the local Habitat chapter should team up with folks like Jim Swearingen and begin to use these houses as a tool in breaking the cycle of poverty and the culture of poverty in the African-American community.

Swearingen told us a story about a family where the kids were raised by a single mother, with the father pretty much out of the picture. Jim's ministry worked with the children, helped them be successful in school, and make a start in college. One of the boys in this family fell in love with, and married a girl he had met in the program. The example Jim and the kids set motivated the boy's parents to get married and raise the younger siblings in a two-parent home.

These are the folks I think we should build Habitat houses for -- the ones who a clawing their way out poverty. The immigrants are welcome, but there's some dues to be paid to our society before you get all the benefits of membership. They're coming to a land that is what it is because hundreds of millions of folks paid their dues -- many with their lives. Some in war, and some in slavery.

But most of us pay our way by just getting up each morning and doing something that someone else is willing to pay for -- that has economic value. Rather than being a burden on society, we earn our own living, contribute to the common good, and are the most charitable people on the planet.

I think we're being taken advantage of.

UPDATE January 2006
Just for curiosity, I drove past the home that our Habitat team build last year for a Mauritanian family. Right there on the side of the house was a brand new dishTV antenna. I think the cheapest Dish service is about $50/mo, plus the purchase cost of the equipment. I have to ask whether this family was the best choice for the Habitat house. They obviously have at least $50/mo of disposible income that they feel is better allocated to their TV service than to many other things I would think are higher on the list if they are trying to build a new life in a America. Now I'm sure we're being taken advantage of.

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