The following is a Christian Work Project sponsored in part by a grant from the Boston Baptist Social Union.
Starlight Ministries is a program of Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC). The mission of EGC is to understand and nurture the vitality of urban churches in the context of their urban communities. EGC works with churches to help them develop programs and partnerships that meet the social and spiritual needs of their ethnic or geographic communities. To accomplish this mission, EGC conducts research, offers consulting, and provides programs that support the work of urban churches.
Starlight Ministries has been building relationships and caring for people in Boston and Cambridge who are homeless or street involved (people who primarily associate with those on the streets and are on the verge of homelessness themselves) since 1990. Each year, Starlight connects with hundreds of individuals on the streets. We provide food, clothing, counseling, case management, referral to services, friendship, prayer, and worship services Using what we've learned about effective outreach and care, we train and provide technical assistance to equip churches and individuals to serve people on the streets effectively.
Throughout the Bible, there is a clear and consistent call to God's people to care for people who are poor, homeless, imprisoned, widowed or orphaned. God empowers His church to be a community in which these individuals are beloved and involved members. Starlight helps churches act on this call by equipping them to build loving and mutually transformational relationships with individuals who are homeless or street involved. These relationships bring an unwavering hope for change to folks on the streets, and they bring an opportunity for extraordinary fruitfulness to concerned Christians. Our staff engages volunteers, churches and folks on the streets in a dynamic network of relationships where positive steps toward sobriety, housing, and, ultimately, meaning as a purpose-filled child of God are within reach, where what seems "impossible" becomes not only possible, but expected.
Our vision is that every church in Greater Boston that wants to engage individuals who are homeless or street involved will do so effectively, and that in turn each individual will have an opportunity to connect with a life-giving community that can support him or her in transitioning out of the streets.
Training others has always been an important component of Starlight. However, over the past year, we realized we need to place even greater emphasis on this aspect of the ministry. In order to increase the number of people on the streets who are being served, we need to reach beyond our own capacity to serve. It is essential for us to share our knowledge and work toward multiplying this work, multiplying the amount of direct service work being done and creating more trained practitioners to do this work. Our goal is not to do less direct service, but to recruit and train more people so that more outreach ministry is occurring. We see Starlight as a "learning clinic," a place where we can help people who are homeless and invite others to learn and replicate what we're doing, to produce internal and external change.
We are intentional about modeling and teaching healthy and effective practices to people who serve alongside us on street and facilities outreach teams, at our drop-in center (Opportunity Resource Center), or with our youth arts program. We've helped two church partners, Hope Fellowship Church (Porter Square, Cambridge) and Park Street Church (downtown Boston), transition from volunteering with Starlight to leading outreaches on their own in Harvard Square and on Boston Common, a fulfillment of the ultimate goal of ministry replication. Additionally, Starlight offers quarterly trainings for current and prospective volunteers as well as people interested in learning more about homelessness. And we have more intensive training for church groups that want to do relational outreach as a team.
As we celebrate our 20th anniversary and look ahead to the future, we are increasing our emphasis on training. We want to develop partnerships with more churches and volunteers, to increase significantly the number of people who are homeless or street involved being served. We plan to add two more levels of training about homelessness. And we will develop additional church trainings, including how to integrate street-involved people as active church members; how to deal holistically with homeless people living in the church's community; and how to replicate Starlight's current outreaches and collaborate with other churches to do so.
Working with people who are homeless can be a slow, long-term process, but one that can be better handled by staff, volunteers and churches who understand that God loves us at our best and our worst, that He can offer us the capacity and community needed to make positive change, and that He has a special priority for the poor and marginalized. Our strategy is to build trusting relationships between loving Christians (our staff, volunteers, and church partners) and people who are homeless or street involved. Once a relationship is established, staff, volunteers and church teams walk alongside the person as he or she sets goals and begins to navigate the journey out of homelessness.
Teams of staff (led by Starlight Outreach Pastor Clarence McGregor) and volunteers engage individuals every Wednesday evening on Boston Common regardless of weather. Team members check in with old and new folks and offer relationship and prayer, food, toiletries, and small clothing items like underwear and socks. We also provide counseling and referral to services as appropriate or requested. Teams regroup at the end of the evening for a prayer circle, Bible message and worship time with our friends on the streets.
Staff and volunteers engage individuals and build relationships with them on weekdays in areas where homeless individuals often congregate. Starlight also conducts follow-up outreach at hospitals, medical shelters, prisons, and other locations, where individuals are off the streets (even for a short time) and sober, and are often more open to discussing change in their lives.
In December, we began pioneering a new type of outreach. On the first and third Thursday of each month, Sara Mitchell (our community advocate) and a small team of volunteers will go to the Long Island Shelter in the evening for a Bible discussion with any of the shelter residents who are interested. The team will meet to pray and plan on the second Thursday of each month.
After making initial contact with people on the streets, we continue to engage individuals and build relationships with them, gaining the trust of individuals who have learned not to trust as a form of self-protection. For many individuals who have been on the streets for years, this additional connection ants as a bridge from the streets to accessing
additional help and resources whether through street-based
case management or at our Opportunity Resource Center. We are patient, understanding that change may be a slow process. The engagement process can take several weeks to several years and happens within the context of outreach.
The Opportunity Resource Center (ORC), located at our offices in the South End, provides a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment where people who are homeless (or at risk of homelessness or formerly were homeless) can meet with Starlight staff and volunteers. We provide clothing, showers, haircuts, healthcare sign up, free voice mail, case management, special events, resource information, and coffee and snacks. One staff member offers haircuts for a nominal charge as a way to build relationships and show people they are valued. The ORC is open on Thursday afternoons.
Once a person who is homeless exhibits intent to make positive change, he or she receives case management assistance. Counseling and case management happens on the street, in a coffee shop, in the ORC, or in our offices. We work with the client to assess his or her personal history, including work, health, housing, family and substance abuse. Staff use the "Pathways to Change" matrix we developed to help clients identify change steps, potential turning points, and action points for change.
For those who are interested, we offer a Bible study on Tuesdays and Christian 12-step recovery group on Fridays. Both of these are followed by lunch shared by staff and those from the streets.
Starlight Youth Outreach integrates arts activities, outreach, and follow-up support for youth and young adults (ages 16-26) who are homeless or street involved. The Sanctuary Arts Community meets weekly for a family-style meal, arts workshops, "creative space" community time, and centering on Tuesday evenings. Dinner conversations provide Alex Grant (the Starlight Youth Outreach coordinator) and volunteers opportunities to build stronger relationships with the youth and to offer encouragement and support. As workshops encourage youth to express themselves. And mentoring provides more opportunity to build relationships with the youth. Alex and the volunteers also do street outreach (to check in with young people they know and meet new ones) and provide case management to help young people articulate and then take steps to achieve their goals.
Outreach practicum through volunteering:
Our primary equipping vehicle is to model healthy outreach to churches and individuals interested in engaging with people who are homeless in their communities. Volunteers serve alongside staff at street and shelter outreach, the ORC, Bible study and recovery group. We later debrief with volunteers outside promote clarity and learning, bring encouragement, and challenge when appropriate. We also focus on skills for advocacy and case management (how to get someone signed up for housing, registered into a detox facility, etc.).
Coaching for churches:
When a group from a congregation is interested in doing outreach in its own neighborhood, Starlight coaches the church on how to develop its program. Generally one of our staff members will go out on outreaches with the church group for several months, debrief their experiences with them, and offer support once the team is doing outreach on its own completely. Coaching focuses on how to do effective relational outreach to people who are homeless and how to connect them to practical services. As mentioned earlier, we are developing additional training modules for churches.
Training and support for individuals:
Four times each year, we offer concurrent half-day trainings for current and prospective volunteers as well as anyone interested in finding out more about homelessness. The basic training provides overviews of street life and why people become homeless, and cover topics such as substance abuse, mental health issues, homeless youth outreach, engaging with a relational approach, and breaking stereotypes around homelessness. The volunteer development training increases volunteers' skills and understanding by reinforcing and delving deeper into concepts they learned earlier. This regular, on-going training for current volunteers also provides an opportunity for volunteers and Starlight staff to discuss outreach challenges, experiences, observations and best practices. As mentioned earlier, we are developing additional training modules.
Outcomes for the coming year
We seek to increase the number of people who are homeless or street involved being served. We do this through our own outreaches, inviting others to serve with us, and equipping individuals and churches with the experience and knowledge they need to replicate our work.
While Starlight's primary focus is on training others to do outreach to homeless individuals well, the motivation for all we do stems from the desire to nurture homeless individuals' gifts, potential and self-esteem; help prevent them from making unhealthy choices; intervene when they do; and participate in the transformation process as each individual's life is changed.
These our are expected outcomes for the coming year:
- Individuals grow in their conviction to serve people who are homeless or street involved (indicator: 30 individuals who had not previously been involved regularly in outreach serve weekly with Starlight staff or an outreach team trained by Starlight for at least six months)
- More churches become involved in service to people who are homeless (indicator: 5 churches begin to partner with Starlight by organizing a clothing drive, participating in a Starlight fundraising event, inviting Starlight staff to give a presentation, or sending at least one person to attend a Starlight's half-day training)
- Churches that already partner with Starlight become more involved with outreach to people who are homeless (indicator: 10 churches increase by 25% their financial giving or the number of members volunteering with Starlight)
- Churches grow in their confidence and leadership to serve people who are homeless or street involved (indicator: 1 church receives customized team-based training and then launches and sustains its own outreach team for at least 6 months)
- Individuals who are homeless gain hope and support and begin to move toward stability (i.e. sobriety, obtaining housing) in their lives (indicator: 100 individuals take at least one positive step in any of the five categories of Starlight's Pathways to Change metric)
- Individuals who are homeless become active members of a healthy social network (indicator: 20 individuals participate in at least 24 Starlight activities in one year )
The foundation of all our work is our Christian faith, and for many of our friends on the streets, faith in Jesus encourages and enables them to make change in their lives. Believing that salvation is found in no one else, Starlight actively shares Christ with people we meet. We provide spiritual direction and discipleship through a variety of means, including:
- Training - Our trainings underscore the biblical basis for our ministry (God's consistent call to care for the widows, the poor, and the orphans). We know transformation is possible, because we know the work of redemption that God has performed in each one of our lives, and so we teach people to look for and pray for transformation in the lives of the people they serve. We also teach people to understand that they will be transformed themselves thorough ministry to people on the streets. And we teach volunteers how to bring up issues of faith in ways that are respectful.
- Street outreach - During our weekly outreach to Boston Common on Wednesday evenings, volunteers and staff share Christ with individuals who are homeless and anyone passing by through informal conversations. It is not uncommon for staff and volunteers to pray and share Scripture with those we meet. In areas where groups can gather, we offer a worship service at the end of the evening which includes singing, prayer and contextually relevant and understandable preaching.
- Shelter outreach - We hold a Bible discussion on two Thursday evenings each month at the Long Island Shelter for anyone who is interested in attending.
- Spiritual direction - Through the course of continued care and support of those we serve, we regularly bring up issues of faith and help individuals see Christ in the midst of whatever they are going through. We also offer a weekly group Bible study on Tuesday mornings, and a Christian 12-step recovery support group on Fridays for individuals to deal with addictive behaviors in a generalized way, in partnership with a church-based "Celebrate Recovery" group. Both the Bible study and the recovery group are followed by a family-style lunch, where we can continue discipleship during casual conversation.
- Christmas banquet for the homeless - This is an annual event which Starlight hosts for people who are homeless. This special time includes Christmas carols, presents and the presentation of the gospel through the Christmas story.
- Easter banquet -The Easter banquet offers a meal, community and a presentation of the gospel for our friends from the street. This has become an annual event also.
Starlight Ministries serves hundreds of people who are homeless in Boston, particularly in Boston Common, Downtown Crossing, the South End, Dudley Square, the Boston Medical Center area, and at the Long Island Shelter. However, we will follow up with our clients wherever they are in the city. Most of the adults we serve are men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Many have been on the streets for years. And half are white, and half are people of color. Many adults we serve struggle with substance abuse, mental illness and serious health problems. Many do not trust service providers and resist placement in treatment programs. Others desire a shelter bed but are unable to obtain one because the shelter system has been over capacity for years. We serve as the connector that encourages and supports people to access services provided by other agencies (such as detox facilities, transitional housing programs, and so on) before, during, and after they have reached the turning point in life. Along with adult homelessness, homelessness among young people is a critical problem in Boston and Cambridge. The number of youth and young adults who are at risk of becoming homeless is also alarming. Many feel misunderstood by others and prefer to hang out with street youth, where they feel an affinity. Youth and young adults who are housed become influenced quickly by their peers who are homeless. The result is that often some housed youth and young adults become homeless themselves. The overwhelming majority of the young people served by Starlight Youth Outreach face multiple barriers that characterize them (according to the definition of Boston's High Risk Youth Network) as being high risk, including homelessness; chronic substance abuse; chronic difficulties in school; and chronic, disruptive social and emotional barriers. Many of these youth have been homeless for at least one year, and often have a disabling condition. Our services are available to everyone regardless of religious background or affiliations As Starlight focuses more on training and equipping churches and less on outreach, we expect to serve fewer homeless individuals directly. However, we believe that this shift in strategy will increase the overall number of individuals who are served well by Christians.