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Christians Against Poverty: Addressing the Poverty Hidden among Us

Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is a debt counselling charity working through Debt Centres based in local churches. Various Christian Reformed churches in Hamilton, Ontario have started CAP debt centres as ministries of their churches, so we sent them some questions to find out why and what they had learned. Here are debt coach Jan Disselkoen's (First Hamilton CRC) responses. Could this be a way for your congregation to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" in your community? 

How did you get involved with CAP? Why?

I first heard about Christians Against Poverty through my neighbour, who had volunteered for CAP in the UK. She and her husband lobbied for several years to bring CAP to Canada. They are also part of our neighbourhood prayer group of folks attending churches in downtown Hamilton.

We had been praying for several years that God would open doors so that we could get to know our neighbours, especially those living in the subsidized housing highrises that shadow our homes and churches.

Having worked for World Renew for thirty years before I retired, I was attracted to CAP's approach as a sustainable and empowering way for people to overcome the burden of debt. After a CAP staff person gave a presentation during a service at First Hamilton, five of us attended the CAP Money Course training and started hosting the Money Course at our church. Then we wrote a proposal to church council that we open a debt centre, and I offered to volunteer as debt coach for the first two years. The proposal was accepted, and the debt centre opened in March 2015.

What have you learned about your neighbourhood through working with CAP?

Our CAP Debt Centre covers the downtown core and west end of the lower city of Hamilton. Having been part of a Community Opportunity Scan two years earlier, I was aware of local demographics and pockets of poverty close to the church, but working with CAP has put a face on what we learned through the Scan. Our clients live in all sorts of housing, but most are in sub-standard buildings and poor neighbourhoods. They have taught me a lot about the services available in the city from free meals to food banks and support centres. A highlight was watching TV and enjoying cake with the women staying in temporary shelter at the YWCA after moving a client there.

One important thing I've learned is that poverty is often hidden: a person can appear to have it all together when away from home, but when we go into their homes, we discover they may not have furniture to sit on or enough food in the cupboard to last the week.

Our centre's clients are all ages and come from all walks of life, but by far the majority (65%) are single women and lone mothers. 27% are employed full time, 20% survive on  benefits only while 20% work part time while receiving some benefits manage with a combination of part-time work and benefits. Only one owns her own home. The most common types of debt are credit card, internet/TV/phone services, student loans, pay-day loans, and debt from 'easy' loan companies.

Who have you met through your congregation’s involvement with CAP?

Part of my debt coach job is publicity, which has given me the opportunity to speak with staff at charities, health care professionals, and local politicians. I've spoken with staff of both city and charitable providers of short-term and rent-geared-to-income housing and grown in appreciation for the important work they do. I work with a bankruptcy trustee in cases where that is the best option for a client. I've also formed connections with other churches in my community whose members are among my clients. But most importantly, I've gotten to know our twenty-six clients who all demonstrate great courage in tough circumstances.

What have you learned from the people you’ve worked with in the neighbourhood about the obstacles that low-income people face in your community?

I've seen how precarious employment contributes to debt: these workers do not know how many hours they will get in a given week or what their work schedule will be in advance; they have no benefits and can be laid off at any time. I have witnessed the extent of the housing shortage in Hamilton, where some clients spend half to two-thirds of their earnings or benefits on rent. I've also seen how interest charges multiply from payday loans and 'easy' loan companies and how quickly they can embroil people in debt. In a few clients, I've also identified poverty behaviours typical in many parts of the world such as living month to month with zero cash flow, spending extra income immediately rather than saving it, and borrowing frequently from family and friends. On the other hand, I've seen incredible resourcefulness and have witnessed how people living in poverty take care of and support one another. 

In your opinion, what do people in your community need in order to address their debt and be free to flourish (eg. charity, accountability, money managing know-how, changes to legislation, government support)?

People need hope. They need to know that they are not alone and that God, and God's people care about their situation.

They need encouragement and a listening ear. They need to know that there is a way out of debt and that if they follow sound advice, they can succeed in becoming debt free. At the same time, they need financial literacy training and practice in sticking to a budget. From society, they need to be protected from unscrupulous lenders, to earn a living wage or to receive adequate benefits if not able to work, and to have access to affordable housing.   

How do you see a connection between this work and your faith? What advice would you give to other congregations who are interested in starting a CAP debt centre?

Through the CAP debt centre, we address the whole person. It is an intentional word and deed ministry. We share our faith verbally, pray with clients, and invite them to church. We host special events for clients at the church where they can get to know members of the congregation and hear the Good News. Our help is unconditional. No matter how high their debt or whose 'fault' it might be, there is no judgement, only acceptance and the offer of hope for a way out. My advice to a congregation starting up would be to make sure the membership is fully committed to the debt centre and ready to give of their talents, treasure, and time. And then, just wait and see what God is going to do through this ministry – both in the lives of the those served by the centre and in the life of the congregation.   

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