Published May 29th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Every day in wealthy Johnson County, Kansas, there are homeless people who can’t find a safe place to sleep and people with mental health crises who, because they can’t find professional help, end up in jail or in hospital emergency rooms.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Which is why a newly formed interfaith network of 20 congregations in the county — Christian, Jewish, Islamic — is working on fixing both problems, not one person at a time but through structural, or systemic, solutions. These people of faith still will help individuals in emergencies, network leaders say, but that approach is never going to make either of those issues disappear.
Using a national model that’s worked well elsewhere, the Good Faith Network (GFN) recently committed itself to working on structural solutions to homelessness and mental illness in Johnson County and is gathering support from elected officials who have the power to adopt policies to help accomplish that.
“We know that in order to create the kind of impact we’re seeking,” says GFN co-president Maria Campbell, senior pastor of Heritage United Methodist Church of Overland Park, “we have to work on the systems that are failing our community. This is born of the desire to do justice. We want to see justice roll in Johnson County.”
(The other GFN co-president is the Rev. Cheryl Jefferson Bell, community justice director at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Leawood.)
An indication of the widespread interest in what GFN is doing came at an assembly earlier this month at COR attended by some 1,200 people who wanted to know the plans and who wanted to ask three elected officials who attended whether they will work with GFN to accomplish the goals.
“It’s important,” says Campbell, “for as many people as possible to engage in this work so that we can have the kind of county we say we live in. We say we live in a rich county where everybody has what they need. But that’s just a pretty picture, a fantasy we’ve told ourselves. We have poverty, we have homelessness, we have mental health crises and we no longer can have a blind eye to it. We cannot.”
GFN has affiliated itself with a national organization called the DART Center (for Direct Action and Research Training Center), based in Miami Shores, Florida. As its website explains, DART is a network of 28 organizations that “brings people together across racial, religious and socioeconomic lines to pursue justice.”
As the Rev. Tim Suttle, pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe and GNF co-vice president, explains: “I gravitated toward the DART model in part because of the research. We can offer not just emotional pleas but well-researched solutions and then advocate for those things that are ordered and productive.”
And, he adds, “We have like stacks of research” to show elected officials systemic solutions that work — or at least have worked elsewhere.
To decide to work on mental illness and homelessness, GFN congregations held many “listening sessions” with congregants and with people they serve.
The Rev. Ali Haynes, senior pastor of Indian Heights United Methodist Church of Overland Park, says: GFN “asked the people, ‘What keeps you up at night? What are the things you’re worried about in Johnson County?’ We heard so many things, stories from mental health to homelessness to affordable housing to discrimination. But the ones we kept hearing over and over again were mental health and homelessness.”
And no wonder. GFN has gathered statistics from various sources it considers reliable to show that in Johnson County on any given night 180 people are homeless and that nearly 93,000 people in the county experience mental illness even though there are only 10 mental crisis stabilization beds to serve both Johnson and Wyandotte counties combined.
Because people having mental crises often end up in emergency rooms or in jail because of a lack of facilities, Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden told the gathering at COR earlier this month this: “We’ve got a community problem and we need a community solution.”
Three Johnson County commissioners attended that meeting — Becky Fast, Janeé Hanzlick and Shirley Allenbrand — and declared themselves eager to work with GFN to find structural solutions to both issues.
But Allenbrand said it’s not something she or other elected officials can do without public support and public pressure on officials who may have doubts about how to proceed. “We need your help,” she says.
But even as GFN seeks systemic answers to big problems, its members know that, at least for now, they still must handle cases of individuals in crisis.
As Settle says: “If you’re locking arms with homeless folks or people experiencing mental illness — and often there’s a big overlap — you’re constantly interfacing with direct service systems, our social safety net. And it’s full of wonderful people doing heroic work. But the results are fairly stable — and they are that 1,500 people are homeless over the course of any given year in Johnson County, and over 1,000 of those are under the age of 18.”
But without structural solutions, congregations will just keep stocking real or metaphorical food pantries to minister to peoples’ emergency needs. The line of the needy will never end.
In the early days of the AIDS crisis — the 1980s — Kansas City scrambled to help one individual after another find medical or mental help or hospice care. It became clear that a broader effort was needed, so various groups eventually formed the AIDS Service Foundation to help manage the epidemic.
One result was coordinated funding and a joint effort that included my own congregation to create Hope Care Center, a 24-hour skilled nursing facility for AIDS patients. It opened in 1996 and still cares for patients today as part of a broader system. If GNF works the way its leaders hope it will, a few years from now there may be similar progress to report on homelessness and care of the mentally ill in Johnson County.
Rabbi David Glickman of Congregation Beth Shalom (he’s the other GNF co-vice president), is confident about that future: “We know that something better is possible in Johnson County.”
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.