In 2020 the United States government will undertake a census of the people. There is a lot at stake in the census, but the most important thing for us to remember is that federal funds will be allocated for ten years based on this census. When the numbers are inaccurate, the funding is inadequate. One of the reasons for an inaccurate count is that there are human beings living on the margins who do not get counted: people experiencing homelessness, the elderly poor, veterans with PTSD, those suffering from addiction or fleeing domestic abuse. Churches – ours included – can help support the work of the census because many of these people are part of our lives.
In Western Massachusetts we have significant engagement with the poor and elderly through our “outdoor cathedrals” in Pittsfield, Greenfield, Northampton and Springfield. We also serve lunches to military veterans in eight locations. And “Walking Together,” a storefront ministry in the challenged neighborhood of Main South in Worcester, offers a welcoming space for 12 Step support, and community programming.
My church leaders in these areas tell me “couch surfing” is the biggest reason that the poor go uncounted – staying with friends and relatives for a short period of time and then moving on. This is especially true when the count is done in the winter. The Rev. Jenny Gregg, who leads the outdoor ministry Cathedral of the Beloved in Pittsfield, told me many individual stories of people who would share space with a friend in rented apartments and then would be forced to leave when the landlord found out about the arrangement. She also reports that many feel unsafe in the shelters because the shelters are underfunded and have too few staff .
“Friends of the Homeless” had 1000+ individuals sleeping in their facilities in 2017. They have a marginal number of beds compared to the number of people needing beds. In some facilities there are as many as 20 people a night sleeping on the floor.
My deacon at Springfield’s “Church Without Walls” says the “tent cities” in Springfield are constantly shifting locations.
Although much of our work is in urban areas, there is tremendous need in the rural areas. Studies show the average weekly wage in the “hill towns” is 43% of the state average. And the poverty rate for young children is 23% in Greenfield, 22% in Ware and 39% in Montague. The Berkshires is aging faster than the rest of the commonwealth and many struggle with rising health care costs and transportation.
There are good people already preparing to make this census comprehensive. The Census Equity Fund has a plan for making 2020 a census that reflects the needs of all the people in the Commonwealth. The Episcopal Church stands ready and willing to help count all of our neighbors. We are blessed with several strong ecumenical partners and we will work with other churches in this effort. We will do this because in God’s eyes everyone counts.