As people have become more aware of the problem of homelessness, more and more Christians have realized that their faith requires them to take action, says the president of the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity International.
right in front of him and ignore it," said the Rev. David Rowe, Boston, who was in Utah last weekend for an eight-state regional Habitat meeting in Ogden."The whole issue of housing has exploded on people's minds the past few years," the Rev. Rowe said in an interview. No longer do people think of the homeless as alcoholics or mentally ill. They realize many homeless are families who have had some bad breaks.
Habitat for Humanity works in 239 different areas in the United States and in 25 different countries to provide affordable housing for low-income people. Chapters were formed in northern Utah about eight years ago and in the Salt Lake Valley about two years ago, and so far have housed at least seven families, said Tom Guyer, treasurer of the Salt Lake group.
The Rev. Rowe said Habitat is now using "work camps" to build or renovate a number of houses at once. A work camp in Chicago completed four houses in five days, and one in Charlotte, N.C., did 14 houses in five days. Camps are planned this summer in Philadelphia and Atlanta. Former president Jimmy Carter, who is on Habitat's board, has participated in some of the events.
In the past, the Rev. Rowe said, sometimes a group would renovate one or two apartments but then their funding or enthusiasm gave out. "If we can do a city block, the whole psyche of that section of Philadelphia will change."
Internationally, he said, one of Habitat's new projects is to try to do something about urban squatter settlements, one of the biggest problems worldwide.
And, because the idea that people shouldn't have to live in shacks or worse is not exclusive to Christianity, he said Habitat is making a mark in places a Christian ministry wouldn't normally be found, such as Islamic countries.
In the United States, each Habitat chapter is responsible for its own fund-raising. However, overseas projects are supported by U.S. donations. The Rev. Rowe said that distinction is made because in the United States, even pockets of extreme poverty are surrounded by affluence. In many foreign countries, poverty is surrounded only by more poverty.
With volunteer labor and constant efforts to keep costs down, the Rev. Rowe said Habitat is able to build a home for an average $24,000, about one-third the average cost of building a new home in the United States.
Rowe said it's common for a new Habitat group to struggle to build one or two houses in its first couple of years, but as the group establishes credibility in the community "the thing just takes off. That's what we could see happen here in Salt Lake City."
The Rev. Rowe, pastor of a church himself, said, "I look at what being involved in Habitat has done for my own church people. It's helped them understand the role of faith in daily life."