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State Embraces Faith-Based Programs For Ex-Cons, Homeless



December 07, 2008

The men who live at Taste-N-See Outreach Ministry in Bridgeport have been praising God in song and scripture for a good hour when Pastor James Jennings urges them to their feet shortly after 7:30 a.m.

There are about a dozen ex-cons here, their histories muddy with violence and drugs and shame, but they stand and embrace each other with awkward grins and thumping backslaps, one after the other, as Jennings looks on.

"Sometimes we think love is what we say, but love is what we do," Jennings says.

There is a low murmur of agreement in the room that doubles as a dining room and a morning chapel for the men who have found refuge here, in this run-down home perched on a shabby corner of the city.

The bugs crawl out of the walls if they leave food in their rooms, breakfast most mornings is a bowl of cold cereal, there's a backbreaking work detail, and they have to rise at 6 a.m. for devotions each day, but to the men who have landed here, this is all secondary.

"I tried all of the bad stuff, the alcohol, the drugs," says Herman Carrington, on parole after serving eight years in prison for first-degree sexual assault. "I got tired of all the bad things. I never found Jesus. He found me here."

Like the other residents here, Carrington could have gone from prison to a traditional halfway house for parolees, but instead chose Taste-N-See, a faith-based residential program.

Taste-N-See, which is named from Psalms 34:8, "Taste and see that the Lord is good, Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him" is one of about 20 faith-based agencies receiving federal funds through the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Connecticut has embraced faith-based services, one of the initiatives to come out of the Bush administration after it created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001. Eleven federal agencies took up the charge, making federal money and support more accessible to faith-based and community organizations.

Although Connecticut officials champion the idea, saying it has improved access to treatment for thousands of people who might not have succeeded in traditional substance abuse programs, the practice of giving taxpayer money to religious organizations is hardly without critics.

"A lot of these programs contain a significant amount of evangelizing or proselytizing, and from our position that type of outreach should never be funded with taxpayer dollars," says Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"There should be no taxpayer-funded evangelizing, period."

But Jennings, a former drug addict himself who found healing in his faith, sees a distinction between using taxpayer money to evangelize and using it to show people, through mercy and kindness, a better path.

He founded Taste-N-See in 2002 after 17 years in another ministry because, as he puts it, he "felt God was calling me to do this."

At the Bridgeport house one recent morning, Jennings joins the rest of the men at 6:30 as they gather for their daily devotional, which begins with a rousing, electric-guitar accompanied chorus of "Glory, glory hallelujah, since I laid my burdens down. I feel better, so much better since I laid my burdens down," that can be heard on the street.

Jennings then stands and describes his own return to society, in a Christian halfway house, after being released from prison.

"I had been out for three days. I had nothing. My clothes were filthy, I was filthy and I hadn't had a haircut in a long time," Jennings says. "But I woke up one morning and the brothers in the ministry had put underwear on my bed, put socks on my bed, put pants on my bed. I began to weep like a little child. I didn't know people could be that kind.

"I saw more God in that than someone preaching the Bible."

A Different Atmosphere

Thomas Kirk, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, says he understands why people get skittish about this, but insists there is a fundamental misunderstanding among the public about what faith-based programs do.

"We don't pay for prayer," Kirk says flatly.

That means that while Taste-N-See Outreach Ministry might offer prayer as part of its program and an unabashedly Christian perspective as well the state isn't paying for that particular element of the program.

Instead, the government funds the housing and case management services offered by the program.

But it is unquestionably the program's religious focus that has attracted so many of the current residents to its doors, which doesn't surprise Kirk.

In fact, Kirk says, that's the whole point of partnering with faith communities in the first place to draw in people who need help but might be unreceptive to traditional treatment programs or suspicious of the clinicians and state employees who run them.

Kirk recounts how, after years in the field as a clinical psychologist, he was surprised to hear a client refer to one of the faith-based programs as a "House of Healing."

"I'm a psychologist. I ran a program in Stamford earlier in my career, but when did I ever hear it called a house of healing?" Kirk asks. "Never. There's an atmosphere that's created [at faith-based programs] that's different from clinical treatment."

Connecticut's faith-based services come under the umbrella of the state's Access to Recovery program, which serves people with drug and alcohol addictions who find their way into state services via prison, court or voluntary treatment. Currently, about 110 Connecticut agencies are receiving federal funds through the Access to Recovery grant.

The agencies of which a portion, like Taste-N-See, are faith-based offer a variety of services ranging from housing to case management to counseling that are intended to complement the more traditional clinical treatments offered to addicts in recovery. State mental health officials believe a combination of clinical and support services is the best way to keep people in recovery from their addictions.

Access to Recovery, which is in its second iteration, is funded by SAMHSA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which awarded Connecticut $14.5 million in 2007 for the second three-year grant period. The first Access to Recovery grant, awarded in 2004, was $22.8 million.

Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at SAMHSA, says the federal government wanted to "level the playing field" for faith-based providers because it knew they were providing the services anyway.

"The system hasn't had much trouble when these same folks were taking care of people for free," Clark says, "but suddenly if I give you a nickel for your work, you're bad?"

Not all faith-based programs are alike, of course. Some, like Taste-N-See, are overtly religious. Others are run by religious organizations but do little to no evangelizing with the people they serve.

Mercy Housing and Shelter is one of the latter.

Although the Hartford-based organization, which serves more than 8,000 poor people every year, is sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy a religious order for women founded in Dublin in 1831 its director, Sister Patricia McKeon, is dubious about the title "faith-based" to describe her agency's identity.

"I honestly don't know what people mean by faith-based. We don't do anything in our programs that smacks of religion," she says.

"St. Francis of Assisi said, 'Go out and preach the gospel to the whole world, and if necessary use words.' But I don't think we ever have to use words."

At Catherine's Place in Hartford, which started out as an emergency shelter in 2004 and now provides year-round transitional housing for 14 women at a time, there is no requirement for daily prayer or worship, despite the center's location at St. Patrick's/St. Anthony's Parish and the Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry.

The women it serves range in age from 18 to 60, but they all have certain issues in common a current or past history that includes substance abuse or psychiatric problems, and homelessness.

McKeon's relationship with the state began years before it sought funding for Catherine's Place. About a decade ago, staff from Mercy Housing and Shelter requested a meeting with Kirk, who was the deputy commissioner at the time, to discuss with him the unmet needs of people living in shelters.

What was born out of that meeting was a collaboration that eventually led to the creation of Catherine's Place and one of the first grants through the Access to Recovery program.

"He really got it," McKeon says of Kirk. "By putting the case workers into the shelters, and making sure they had case managers, it's really meant that people get much better services."

On a recent afternoon, the floor where the women are housed, two to a room, is all but empty because most of the residents are volunteering in the community, attending school, or in treatment. One woman has stayed behind for the day. This is her third shelter since becoming homeless about a year ago after being injured at her job.

She worked as a nurse for her entire adult life, but the injury she was attacked by a patient, she says, at a state psychiatric hospital and worsening arthritis led to a prolonged absence from work and, eventually, depression. She begins to cry quietly as she speaks about the care she has received at Catherine's Place.

"It's given me my dignity back," she said. "There's an attitude that somehow gets conveyed from the staff here. There's just this quiet respect that's conveyed to you, that you're worthy of that."

Is It Effective?

Pastor Robert Hemingway is the founder and executive director of Uttermost Community Outreach, a faith-based agency located next door to the Crossroads drug and alcohol treatment center, a low-slung, bleak building on the outskirts of New Haven.

Hemingway used to be a clinical counselor at Crossroads, which houses 66 men and 42 women who either have been ordered by the court to undergo treatment or have volunteered for it themselves. It was during his time there that Hemingway noticed that his clients needed more one-on-one support, more help finding and staying on the right path.

So he created Uttermost Community Outreach in 2002 and, a year later, started his own Pentecostal church. The agency now employs about 40 people to provide case management and spiritual counseling for clients at Crossroads and elsewhere.

The agency isn't about converting people to Christianity, Hemingway says, but instead tries to help people find and keep their own spiritual practices. Practically speaking, that means Uttermost staff members provide transportation to churches, mosques and synagogues all over the city.

"We model another way of living," Hemingway says. "We're trying to make people understand that we all live in darkness. We all have these issues, these problems, and God is able to pull us out of it all."

That message is no doubt inspiring to many, but does it work?

Boston, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, says there are legitimate questions about effectiveness when it comes to faith-based treatment.

"Some of these programs aren't anything more than extended Bible study," Boston says. "I think it's common for a person to get immersed in that lifestyle but there's no evidence that it sticks.

"I'm not knocking the religious groups and saying they do any worse," he adds. "They just don't do any better."

State officials believe the faith-based agencies will eventually prove their worth, but said because the programs are still relatively new their effectiveness needs to be studied more over time.

Faith-based providers, however, are quick to provide numbers they believe show their effectiveness.

Ed Mitchell, program coordinator at Taste-N-See, says the ministry's clients have a recidivism rate of 13.2 percent, which it defines as someone who goes back on the street and uses drugs or commits a crime within one year of leaving the program.

And at Catherine's Place, for the fiscal year ending June 2007, 46 percent of the 139 clients moved into other housing after leaving the shelter.

State officials said they can't confirm any of the statistics provided independently by the faith-based agencies, but they say they are convinced that a combination of recovery and clinical services works best when treating substance abuse. In the first round of access to recovery grants, for example, 87 percent of clients who received both recovery services such as housing, transportation or vocational training and clinical treatment were alcohol- and drug-free at discharge.

Recovery services are often the work of faith-based providers, and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is putting a heavy emphasis on them now after decades of focusing almost exclusively on treatment.

Kirk was one of the early national proponents for what is called the "recovery model" in mental health and substance abuse treatment circles. Simply put, this means that the agency now operates on the belief that people with addictions and psychiatric diagnoses can recover from their illnesses.

"My agency had a budget of about $650 million but when we looked at how we were spending the money we realized that 20 percent of the people were using 80 percent of the resources," Kirk says. "So we asked, 'What do we need to change so they don't keep cycling back?'"

Answering that question took time, and what grew out of those answers were efforts like Access to Recovery, which lets clients with substance abuse problems choose from a menu of clinical and recovery support services.

This means that in addition to undergoing detox and methadone treatment, people can also choose to enter sober housing, have basic needs like food and clothing met, get transportation to and from school or work, and attend vocational training.

The clients come from all over the system there are homeless addicts, parents whose children have been taken by the Department of Children and Families until they dry out, ex-cons, and people who have been referred by the courts.

Clark, of SAMHSA, says the government is tracking the Access to Recovery programs and found that, nationally, 83 percent of the clients currently being served by ATR II were still clean after six months in the program, while 39 percent were in stable housing and 51 percent were employed. A full 96 percent of the clients in ATR II were not in prison.

"Personal responsibility is still expected, so if the client says, 'Gee, I want this doctrinaire program to help me recover,' well, the expectation is that recovery is going to be facilitated," Clark says. "This is not a subsidy to the faith community, but miracles are not to be expected just because it's faith-based."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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