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Sustainability is worth the fight

A few weeks ago in a meeting with volunteers at Back Bay Mission, I was asked what long-term sustainability looks like for the people we serve. No one had asked me that question before, however, immediately I knew that the volunteer’s question captured the distinction between giving a person a hand-out and giving a hand-up.

At Back Bay Mission, we make a clear distinction between emergency services, hand-outs and hand-up services. Hand-up services provide access to resources, training, information and education with emotional relational support. The Hand-up services in partnership with clients create the pathway to long-term sustainability. Regardless of need or circumstance every person is treated with respect.

Back Bay Mission’s hand-out services seek to stabilize a deteriorating situation that threaten the individual’s immediate survival: food pantry, utility assistance, daytime safe space for the homeless, identification cards, access to DHS, access to Coastal Family Health and an address to receive mail. These “hand-out” services are designed to keep those threats to survival situations from getting worse.

We have a range of hand-up services that are designed to partner with individuals and families to increase their capacity to move from poverty to sustainability. For instance, the HUD funded supportive housing program focuses on partnering with clients to create and implement a plan for moving out of permanent supportive housing to a housing situation that reflects their aspirations and hope for their families. The rental assistance program funded by Mississippi Home Corporation also allows us to assist people with lowest income to have housing and to prevent homelessness for people experiencing a situational catastrophe.

In the Micah Day Center, our homeless outreach center, homeless guests have access to a resume writer, computers to assist in job searches, showers, clean clothes and haircuts. They are encouraged and supported in utilizing workforce development opportunities that prepare them to be gainfully employed.

Often, options are needed that nurture self-esteem and healing of long-standing emotional wounds to encourage hope for the future. So, art classes run by local artists are offered, support is provided for the client initiated community garden, and case management workers provide encouragement, inspiration and hope for clients who desire to make their lives work.

Our housing recovery program selects houses to rehab for persons whose incomes, disability, and/or illness have made their home uninhabitable or inaccessible due to delayed maintenance. Housing rehab works to provide a safe housing environment in which the elderly, children and people with disabilities can be cared for, and therefore create more possibilities for contributing to improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

In this context, long-term sustainability looks like people having the tools, support and guidance to redesign their lives in order to realize their long-term hopes and aspirations. As the Back Bay Mission staff engages with our client population, we are frequently impressed by the untapped talents and gifts that our clients possess. Long-term sustainability involves relating to people in such a way that they feel and are empowered to grow their lives in ways that have meaning and value for them and the communities in which they live. As I understand long-term sustainability, it is nurturing a sense of resiliency within the heart of the individual that when failures, disappointments and crises happen, as it does with all of us, there is within them the capacity to access a range of internal and external resources to recover and move forward. Building long-term sustainability requires having sufficient staffing so that every client is engaged with someone who is focused on supporting their life goals in ways that matter to them.

In my Webster’s Encyclopedia Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language published in 1989, there is no definition for the word “sustainability.” However, in the Encarta Dictionary on my computer, the definition is able to be maintained. So, in describing what sustainability looks like, it looks like people having capacity to maintain themselves in the midst of life’s many challenges and opportunities in ways that give hope for their future. At Back Bay Mission, our staff does not focus on past mistakes and failures; we focus on what is needed for each client to move towards a future with hope.

Graham is the executive director of Back Bay Mission. Reach her at