“It’s one thing to provide therapy. It’s another thing to provide community,” said Anita Lightburn, Ph.D., director of the Beck Institute on Religion and Poverty.
Lightburn was recently awarded a $300,000 grant to help faith communities empower homeless populations reintegrating into society. Her research has shown that the Life Skill Empowerment Programs (LSEP) not only help the homeless, but it also helps volunteers understand the brutal realities that spawn homelessness.
Catholic Charities and Interfaith Assembly for Homelessness and Housing developed the empowerment programs more than 25 years ago, but, until Lighburn’s study, there was no research to determine the program’s success. The three-month program starts with the simplest of methods—pairing those on the outskirts of society with a community of volunteers who prepare, and then share, a meal with them.
Lightburn first heard about the program five years ago at a Beck-sponsored conference held at Fordham called “Capacity Building in Faith Communities.” Although the program primarily operates out of faith communities, it is adaptable to any organization and is nondenominational. Most communities that take on the program infuse it with that community’s personality.
The trust begins at the dinner table, said John Delfs, M.D. Dr. Delfs runs an iteration of the program for the recently incarcerated at Riverside Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. During the first year of the program, parishioner Elaine Thompson agreed to take on the role of cook.
Thompson had soup kitchen experience. She banned paper plates and buffets. That’s what the populations experience in prisons and shelters, she told Dr. Delfs.
Instead, she insisted on china, white tablecloths, and silverware. Dinner would be served family style, something that some of the participants had never experienced—ever.
“Doing this was something that said ‘You are important enough,’” said Dr. Delfs. “For the volunteers it was fascinating to meet people we wouldn’t have otherwise met. They just had different breaks in life.”
As with every church, the dinner at Riverside is followed by group sessions led by trained moderators. There is a “Life Skills” curriculum and a storytelling group where participants talk about their experiences. Each participant is assigned mentors who are culled from volunteers of the church. There are professional caseworkers pulled from Fordham’s master of social work program. After three months the participants celebrate graduation. Many of the participants return to volunteer and stay in contact with their mentors.
Besides the recently incarcerated, there are also programs for homeless veterans and domestic violence survivors. A program for LGBT youth recently held its first graduation.
“The program allows participants to ‘own’ their story,” said Lightburn. She said that the mentors also help the participants set realistic goals, like taking control of their finances and securing housing.
Five years ago Lightburn found few takers on funding the initial research. Undeterred, she conducted a process evaluation with three doctoral candidates from the Graduate School of Social Service. That initial evaluation led to a $20,000 grant for a study pilot, which led to an $85,000 grant for a full demonstration. The recent anonymous source also gave a $165,000 grant to grow the program. The program’s proven success spurred the latest $300,000 grant.
In order for Lightburn to study the program and maintain a professional distance, the research evolved into a learning collaborative with the Beck Institute providing research as guidance. Fordham students also benefited. At Riverside, Hope Eisdorfer Levin, GSS ’13, began as a program intern. She is now the director of the program and the Life Skills program at Xavier Mission.
“The research is a very important part of this, even though everyone who participates knows that people’s lives are being turned around,” said Dr. Delfs. “But we need the research to identify the essential components that are a success. Our society requires data to be convinced that these programs are worth the cost.”
Dr. Delfs, who practices internal medicine and behavior neurology, said that he personally needed little proof to be convinced.
“Never in my experience have I seen anything like this. It’s a powerful course redirection,” he said. “And it wouldn’t have happened without Fordham and the Beck Institute.”