One of the stunning discoveries of the last thirty years is that $5.4 trillion in federal spending does not end poverty. In fact, powerful evidence now suggests that the more Washington spends to fight poverty, the more poverty it produces or perpetuates.
"A check from the government can often distract people from solving their basic problems," says Thomas Laymon, director of the Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids. "Those who receive government checks receive no spiritual support. They are not held accountable for addictions, and they have no incentive to change their behavior."
Laymon ought to know. His organization, with a $1.5 million annual budget, is one of the largest and oldest urban missions in Michigan. Using private funds only, Laymon, with his staff of 25 and many volunteers, provides about 800 meals a day to the hungry and shelters about 100 homeless men each night.
"We want to get to know these people so that we can meet their needs," Laymon said. And from this experience he has learned that "homelessness and drug abuse are usually related." Drugs disconnect relationships, isolate the individual, and eventually move him out on the streets.
"There is an important spiritual side to this problem," Laymon argues, "and when the government-run shelters ignore that, they frequently fail. They try to solve physical needs and ignore spiritual needs. For the drug abuser, the drug is god. We have often found that when they switch and make Jesus their Lord that is the beginning of recovery and restoration." True, Laymons message is an explicitly Christian onebut theres something going on here that perhaps people of any faith or no faith can appreciate.
Mel Trotter, the man who founded this ministry in 1900, is an example of a transformed life. He was an alcoholic whose drunkenness regularly separated him from his wife and family. He converted to Christianity in an urban mission in Chicago and, after recovering and rejoining his wife, he came to Grand Rapids to start an urban mission that would reach out to drunks and homeless in the city. Almost 100 years later, the mission he founded is still going strong.
"We want our clients to at least consider the spiritual side of their problems," Laymon remarks. "We ask those who want a meal to talk to one of our counselors. If someone wants a bed for the night we ask them to attend a chapel service."
For those who want more, the Mel Trotter Ministries has a one year drug treatment program that currently graduates 25 men each year. Laymon says the long-run success rate from this program, which he wants to expand, is over 70 percent.
The students in the drug treatment program are some of the most enthusiastic workers for the mission. Some help with the renovation; others sort clothes that have been donated, or study for their high school diploma; still others are working in a food management training course.
Tending the front desk during the night is Lonnell Rice, a 27 year old who completed the program this summer. "My mother was an alcoholic and I started using drugs when I was only five," says Lonnell shaking his head. "I was in four drug rehab programs before I came here, but I was back on the streets using drugs every time." Here I have taken a look at my life. I have friends and I have focus. Ive been clean for over a year and Ill never go back."
Standing next to Lonnell, nodding his head, is 44-year-old Gerard. "Im a former cocaine addict," he says. Gerard explains his previous unsuccessful rehabilitation and how his wife divorced him. "I tried to deal with my addiction through psychology, but that didnt work. I lost a great job as a welder and I decided to commit suicide." On a snowy day last January, Gerard walked the streets of Grand Rapids looking for a place where he could quietly end his life. "I saw this cross on the Mel Trotter mission and felt drawn to it. I didnt know why, I just went in and the guy at the front desk offered to help. Soon I was talking with a counselor and that afternoon I gave my life to Jesus Christ."
Gerard now works at the front desk in the evening. "When I see the drunks and the homeless wander in here for a meal or a bed for the night, I just want to do what I can to help them. They are what I was before January 5th."
And Gerard, in turn, is what Mel Trotter himself was 100 years ago. The private charity that takes place every day at the Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids is a sharp contrast to the government charity that has failed during the last thirty years.