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The Carletonian

Pastor discusses plight of poverty across America, points to possible solutions

<nvocation speaker Craig Rennebohm ’67 painted a bleak picture of life for future Carleton students last Friday: competing for housing with Oles, living on the streets or in the newly-transformed Burton homeless shelter and eating at the soup kitchen on the Bald Spot. This, he claimed, is what would happen if the Carleton and St. Olaf administrations treated student-housing programs like the federal government treats those for homeless people.

In his presentation entitled, “Recovering Human Neighborhoods: From the Street to Systemic Change,” Rennebohm, a pastor in the United Church of Christ and founder of the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle, discussed his experiences with the city’s homeless and mentally ill since moving to Seattle in 1975 and pointed out the government’s role in perpetuating the plight of the poverty-stricken.

When he arrived in Seattle, Rennebohm was a pastor in an old neighborhood, where his church was located next to a heroin alley. The homeless, including ex-prisoners, addicts and mentally ill, were strewn throughout the nearby streets in what one of Rennebohm’s colleagues referred to as “a human dumping ground.”

According to Rennebohm, Seattle’s public policy was set up to discourage projects to serve the poor, and in effect, “the poorest and most vulnerable of citizens compete for the leftovers.” He started the Mental Health Chaplaincy in 1985 to assist some of these vulnerable citizens.

One of those he met was a man named David, who Rennebohm was asked to help after he had been banned from Seattle’s shelters and clinics for lashing out at staff. Upon acquiring viral meningitis in 2000, David lost his short-term memory. Since then, he has spent his days and nights in a specific routine, traveling systematically between a day and a nighttime shelter that will still accept him.

After seeing a doctor with Rennebohm’s help, David was diagnosed with depression. Medication wasn’t an option because even if David were to remember to take the drugs, said Rennebohm, mentally ill members of the homeless population do not have anywhere to keep personal belongings.

Rennebohm arranged another appointment for David, but because of the current state of the economy, Washington has begun cutting support and assistance for programs like the Mental Health Chaplaincy; David will have to wait months, or possibly a year, before he has any hope of getting off the streets. It is systemic problems like this with which Rennebohm is most concerned.

“David is not homeless because of viral meningitis,” he said. “He is homeless because of the way we have organized our neighborhoods, the way society distributes housing and healthcare.”

The most recent one night count of homeless people in Seattle reached 9,000, and nationwide, Rennebohm said that number rises to three quarters of a million. To change this, he advocates a public health system based on the notion that all people deserve 24-hour multidisciplinary healthcare. He also demands a change in the current national housing strategy, which gives homeless people—often ex-prisoners or mentally ill—vouchers and sends them into the city to find their own housing, where they will likely be turned away for the same reasons they are incapable of supporting themselves in the first place. In effect, Rennebohm said, a scene equivalent to the hypothetical Carleton situation mentioned above actually results.

According to Rennebohm, the issue of homelessness is not one of practicality, but a moral and ethical one. “We know how to do it,” he said, “but will we decide to do it? The choice is before us. We can act or pull away. We can pass by or choose to act with compassion.”

Rennebohm has also begun exploring homelessness outside of the realm of moral imperative, looking at it instead in the context of systems and ecological thought. In this fashion, he explained that environments where only a few or part of a certain kind of species survive are not sustainable over time.

In order to survive, he said, “we are driven to states of maximum diversity and equitability. It is in building human neighborhoods with commitment to the wellbeing of all that we will survive and flourish.”

In taking on the enormity of the problem of homelessness, Rennebohm encouraged students to become interested in national policy surrounding the issue, but also to look with compassion on their neighbors and take the time to see them as individuals.
“The challenge is global,” Rennebohm said, “but noble points of change begin in our own streets.”

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