This month, we were delighted to talk to Australian cruisers Merv and Sharon Stevenson aboard Southern Cross 4 about house church humanitarian work that they have done over the course of their lives. We met them in San Diego where they are advocating for homeless people to get off the streets.
There are many factors that lead to homelessness across the US, including a widening wage gap, an inadequate social welfare system and the stigmatization of poverty. As of 2016, half a million Americans were living on the streets, in transitional housing or in structures not meant for habitation, such as cars. 15 percent of this population was considered chronically homeless. “A lot of people end up on the streets with drug and alcohol addictions, or mental disorders”, explains Merv. “Here in San Diego, there are plenty of resources for those that are looking for a way out, such as drug rehabilitation programs, assistance in looking for jobs and housing aid. However, those that have stayed on the streets for a long time often have other factors that make them unwilling to transition back into regular society. For some of them, their entire social structure is built of people in the same situation as them, or mental illness makes it hard for them to function in regular settings.”
Having worked with homeless populations on several foreign missions, they further elaborate on the unique problems faced by different countries. “The biggest hardship that the homeless face here in the US is a lack of access to healthcare. This was further aggravated in the 1980s when there was a mass discharge of mental health patients from institutions due to underfunding, forcing patients to fend for themselves. In western societies such as this, family unity is not very strong, and those that fall on hard times often are unable to turn to their family for help. Inversely, in Asia, there are fewer homeless people because of how tightly knit families are. They would rather house family members in need, than let them stray onto the streets and bring shame upon their families. This however leads to a lot of stress within the foster families, often manifesting in abuse. In such cases, we try to counsel people on the value of family unity and the sanctity of marriage.”
California, despite being one of the riches states in one of the richest countries in the world, holds a quarter of all homeless people in the US. This is due in part to the rising cost of housing and underfunded programs to provide shelter to the homeless. “One day when we were in San Francisco, frustrated by the juxtaposition of luxurious company buildings against inner city destitution, we decided to start writing to the top 20 companies in the US, asking them to consider contributing money to infrastructure meant to help the homeless back onto their feet”, shares Sharon. Recently, pressure from the public such as this has yielded promising results. This year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated $250,000 to a ballot measure intended to address the housing crisis in California worsened by gentrification brought in by the influx of well-paid tech employees.
Of course, you do not have to be rich and influential to effect change in your community. For the everyday person, they have this advice. “As Christian ministers, we believe that we should always practice what we preach. We are working on encouraging local churches to open up their resources to help the homeless. Simple things such as unlocking their doors and allowing families who live in their cars to park overnight in church car lots go a long way in providing a sense of security to those without housing, some of them families with small children. Unfortunately too many churches are run like companies and are more interested in collecting donations for themselves rather than helping their society; we would like to see that change”, laments Merv. “People often do not know how to react to the homeless, or what they can do to help. It can be something as small as buying them a meal and talking to them, but it really means a lot when they know that there are people out there who care. It can be tricky approaching a homeless person directly; sometimes they might not be of a sound mind, in which case it is best to leave them alone.” As for advise in avoiding the occasional fraud? Sharon gives us a tip, “Look at their shoes; those that are really homeless usually have worn out footwear. Sometimes we do hand out small amounts of money to those who request it, for things such as making small purchases, or making a phone call. It is not always used to buy more alcohol as most people assume.”
Their humanitarian work extends beyond helping the homeless. They describe to us their experience of fostering 24 teenagers from abusive families while they were still living on land in Melbourne. “When children are reported as being abused, the welfare system in Australia steps in to resolve the issue by separating these children from their families temporarily, removing the toxic element such as rehabilitating an alcoholic parent or convincing a mother to leave her abusive husband, and then reuniting the children with their family. We specialized in fostering teenagers, and often by that age, they have developed antisocial behaviors themselves, such as self-harm, drug use or prostitution.” They tell us that fostering a child is not the same as adoption; contracts usually last only 2 or 3 years. “It takes patience, but it is gratifying seeing a child’s future take a turn for the better. We still keep in contact with a handful of our former foster children, and are always delighted to hear about the fulfillment that they have come to find in their lives.” With the Stevensons having taken in so many children at the lowest point in their lives, we wondered if there have been any that they were unable to help. “Yes, there has been one. Unfortunately because the welfare system is so generous in Australia, there have been families that have children for the sole reason of taking advantage of the system. They would send their children off to foster care, and then intentionally have them break their contract by being destructive in their foster homes, whereupon they are reassigned to new families and the cycle is repeated. There wasn’t much that we could do to help those that didn’t want to be helped.”
While the 65 foot ketch is still being equipped for ocean crossings, it has big plans lined up in its future. “We hope to utilize Southern Cross 4 to deliver school materials to remote islands in the South Pacific that otherwise do not see regular shipments or adequate funding by their governments. Another area that we are looking into is facilitating medical services in these locations, especially in the area of obstetrics. We have 3 spare cabins aboard Southern Cross 4, in which we plan to house medical staff and supplies on our trips.”
Mahatma Ghandi once said that the measure of a civilization is in how it treats its weakest members. As global citizens, the generosity that we show those without material or social means is where we find our strength and merit, and with it a future worth inheriting to our children.
Photos courtesy of Merv and Sharon Stevenson.
Helping the homeless: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/10/ways-to-help-homeless-people_n_2271719.html
Fostering children in the US: https://nfpaonline.org/foster/
Delivering school and medical supplies to remote locations: https://www.yachtingworld.com/cruising/helping-locals-remote-cruising-areas-60243
Choosing reputable charities to support: https://www.charitynavigator.org/
Housechurch Australia https://www.housechurch.com.au
Southern Cross Yacht Mission Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Southern-Cross-Yacht-Mission-1075719592516868/
 Weinberger,Daniel. “The Causes of Homelessness in America”. Stanford University EDGE Seminar Series. https://web.stanford.edu/class/e297c/poverty_prejudice/soc_sec/hcauses.htm (retrieved September 3, 2018)
 “2016’s Shocking Homelessness Statistics”. Social Solutions. https://www.socialsolutions.com/blog/2016-homelessness-statistics/ (retrieved September 3, 2018)
Lyons, Richard D. “How Release of Mental Patients Began”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/30/science/how-release-of-mental-patients-began.html (retrieved September 3, 2018)
Stangel,Luke. “Mark Zuckerberg Pledges $250,000 to Fix California Housing Crisis Facebook Helped Create”. Puget Sound Business Journal. https://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/news/2018/07/10/facebook-mark-zuckerberg-california-housing-crisis.html (retrieved September 3, 2018)