On Faith and Housing Justice

By Sara Constantakis, Thrive Detroit Copyeditor

I would like to believe that I am a person who has always been concerned with justice. Throughout most of my adult life, I have volunteered for organizations that help people — teaching reading to children and adults, or raising money for organizations that fight diseases — but I don’t know if, at the time, I ever thought of those activities as justice work. This past November, I was asked to give a reflection at my church on the role of justice in my life. As I was putting together my reflection, I realized that it has been through my experience with Unitarian Universalism that I have learned the most about what justice means, the different types of justice, and how justice plays out in our world, and it has been at my congregation of almost 12 years, Birmingham Unitarian Church, that I’ve developed my own personal concept of justice.

Our Senior Minister, Rev. Mandy Beal, said something in her November church newsletter column that clarified what justice has come to mean to me in the almost 12 years that I have been an active member of Birmingham Unitarian Church. She said that as Unitarian Universalists, “we do not have an orthodoxy, meaning right-doctrine, but we do have an orthopraxy, meaning right-practice. Whereas we might have different beliefs and philosophies about the nature of life and the universe, we all arrive at the same conclusion: that every person has inherent worth and dignity.” That last part — that every person has inherent worth and dignity — that is where my concept of justice lives, and the justice work I do today springs from that principle. It’s the first of Unitarian Universalism’s seven guiding principles. And I learned it at BUC.

In our congregation, we’re given tangible opportunities to work and fight for justice in many different areas, such as environmental and climate justice, LGBTQ+ rights, the immigration crisis, and gun violence prevention, among other issues. I’ve chosen to focus most of my justice efforts on helping the unhoused and vulnerably housed. I found my way to this work through volunteer opportunities with South Oakland Shelter at BUC. And after a few years volunteering there, I wanted to do more to help, so I reached out to Thrive Detroit founder Delphia Simmons and started as a copyeditor for this publication.

I want to make note of some vocabulary here. Most of us are used to hearing and using the term “homeless” to refer to people who, whether temporarily or on a more long-term basis, lack housing or live in housing that is is insecure or below the minimum standard. I’ve recently begun favoring the use of the term “unhoused” over “homeless.” I appreciate the definition of unhoused given by a UK organization called Unhoused.org, which is a social-impact startup focused on using technology to help the unhoused. In their explanation of the term, they say that the word “homeless” has derogatory connotations and implies that one is “less than,” which undermines self-esteem and change. The use of the term “unhoused,” instead, implies that there is a moral and social assumption that everyone should be housed in the first place. The moral and social assumption that everyone should be housed — that, for me, is what makes helping unhoused individuals a matter of justice. Because every person has inherent worth and dignity, it follows that everyone should be housed.

Birmingham Unitarian Church acts as a host congregation for South Oakland Shelter every year during the first week of November. We’ve been hosting SOS on our church campus for almost 30 years and I have been volunteering in the program for at least 8 of those years. South Oakland Shelter (now under the umbrella of the Lighthouse organization) is an emergency shelter program that maintains 30-35 unrestricted shelter beds and partners with over 60 host congregations like BUC. Every week throughout the year, the host congregations provide 30-35 of SOS’s clients — which can include adults, teens, children, and infants — with overnight accommodations, three daily meals, shower facilities (in BUC’s case), transportation, and meaningful interactions with volunteers, while the SOS staff helps the clients seek housing. One of the things I value about our SOS program at BUC is that it brings unhoused individuals into our midst, and brings church volunteers face-to-face with the reality of who unhoused people are. And in doing so, it destroys the notion that they are a mysterious “other.” As Rev. Mandy said in another sermon in November about the immigration crisis, “we have to let go of this idea that some of us are deserving and others of us are not. Our value is not determined by where we are born, the color of our skin, our native language, or any other marker of identity.” I would add that our value is not determined by whether or not we have stable housing. Rev. Mandy said that “we are all siblings who share the same right to life.” In my view, we also share the same right to safe and stable housing.

Many of us, understandably so, have an image in our minds of unhoused individuals as people sleeping and/or hanging out on city streets, often seeming unclean or in tattered clothing, sometimes approaching us asking for money or food. That one-dimensional perception changes once you spend time volunteering for South Oakland Shelter. I have frequently observed that on any given evening during BUC’s host week, as guests and volunteers are bustling around packing lunches and preparing dinner, you sometimes cannot tell, just by looking at us, who is an SOS guest and who is a church volunteer. It’s a good reminder of how connected and how vulnerable we all are, and it helps remove the barrier that keeps unhoused individuals in a separate group we call “other.”

It’s that “other-ing” that is keeping us from finding permanent and long-term solutions to what is commonly called the homelessness crisis. In the Los Angeles area, a $1.2-million bond measure to build permanent homes for unhoused people was approved by voters three years ago. But the process of actually getting this housing built has been met with obstacles, including opposition from homeowner groups to building such homes in their neighborhoods, and backlash from residents concerned about decreasing real-estate values. In the wealthy, beachside neighborhood of Venice, where the median home price approaches $2 million, some residents have gone to court to oppose the construction of a homeless center. In the Detroit area, among African Americans both in the city of Detroit and the surrounding suburbs, housing instability is a byproduct of the interconnected issues of generational poverty, discriminatory housing, and racism. And all of these have their roots in the systemic dehumanization of the other.

The homelessness crisis is vast, complicated, and sometimes, seemingly unsolvable. I would need many more words to address all of the nuances, problems, causes, and potential solutions. But for now, when I reflect about justice, the Unitarian Universalist First Principle of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person grounds me and carries me forward in my work with the unhoused. That’s justice to me.