Rick Lechner says he speaks the language of the streets. A former drug addict and convicted criminal, the Southern Baptist preacher helps put a dent in homelessness in Omaha, Neb., as co-founder of Freeway Ministries.
Omaha is one of 11 cities included in a new Baylor University study that found, on average, 58 percent of emergency shelter beds for the homeless in those cities are provided through faith-based organizations. At the high end of the spectrum is Omaha, where faith-based groups provide 90 percent of emergency shelter beds, the Baylor Institute for the Studies of Religion case study found. Only 4 percent of the homeless in Omaha were found to be unsheltered.
Nationwide, faith-based organizations were providing 11,465 beds for the homeless in January 2015, the study said, compared to 8,425 beds provided by nonfaith-based groups.
Lechner, whose homeless ministry also has sites in Springfield and Marshfield, Mo., sees the faith-based response to homelessness as part of the Great Commission. The ministry has its home base at Crossway Baptist Church in Springfield and is supported by numerous Southern Baptist churches and hundreds of volunteers, Lechner told Baptist Press.
"Well that's the Great Commission," Lechner said. "What we're doing, we're trying to bridge the gap from street to church, and we're also trying to bridge the gap from church to street. What we're trying to do is get the church involved in one-on-one discipleship and … evangelism. We're trying to get them off the church pew and loving the people from the streets, and we're trying to get the people from the streets to love those that have been on the church pew their whole lives."
Lechner's ministry, co-founded in 2011 with John Stroup and Mike Aye as an outreach of Crossway, is featured in the Baylor study "Assessing the Faith-Based Response to Homelessness in America: Findings from Eleven Cities," released Feb. 1. Freeway's Omaha location graduates about 50 men a year from a 14-week residential mentoring program entirely funded by churches, the study said, and as such not included in government statistics.
Nationwide, the homeless population totaled 564,708 in January 2015, the study found, defining the homeless as those sleeping outside, in an emergency shelter or in lodging provided through transitional housing programs.
"What we have learned, and part of the report states, is a lot of the reason for—not all homeless—but some of the homelessness is rebellion," Lechner told BP. "They want to do things their own way. They don't want to follow the guidelines of homeless ministries. They want to come in when they want to come in. They want to be able to drink when they want to drink. It's very difficult to find those who are willing to do whatever it takes" to recover and lead productive lives. The program has a high success rates when clients are receptive and committed, he said.
The Heartland Church Network of Southern Baptist Churches in Omaha also features Lechner's ministry, online at freewayomaha.com.
Rankings of the other cities in the study, based on the percentage of emergency shelter beds provided by faith-based groups, are Houston, 79 percent; Indianapolis, 78 percent; Baltimore, 74 percent; Seattle, 63 percent; Denver, 54 percent; Jacksonville, 52 percent; Atlanta, 49 percent; Phoenix, 41 percent; San Diego, 37 percent, and Portland, 33 percent.
Conversely, the percentage of the homeless who are unsheltered in those cities, the study found, are Houston, 30 percent; Indianapolis, 8 percent; Baltimore, 12 percent; Seattle, 42 percent; Denver, 14 percent; Jacksonville, 23 percent; Atlanta, 21 percent; Phoenix, 29 percent; San Diego, 57 percent, and Portland, 48 percent.
The study utilized data provided to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and conducted interviews with various faith-based groups. But the study does not include the many contributions churches make in homeless ministry, study authors wrote.
"It is worth noting that it does not include the work of many churches, temples, synagogues and mosques throughout each city," the study reads, "to provide meals, clothing, furniture, counseling, childcare, transportation and more."
The full study is available at baylorisr.org.