Photo by Oleg Magni from Pexels)
In Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program for chronically homeless men, we did something unorthodox—again. We allocated several hundred dollars and gave it to the guests at one of our emergency shelters to decide how to spend, on their own, as a community food budget.
Since 2016 we have been using a community decision-making process to manage the shelter collaboratively and democratically with our shelter guests. However, we eventually realized that while we could talk the talk about democratic practices, we also needed to put our money where our mouth was — literally.
The decision to give our shelter guests their own budget was as much about good program management as it was about integrity. We manage the shelter according to a “good governance” paradigm — meaning we hold ourselves accountable to the men in the shelter (our “constituents”) as much as we hold ourselves accountable to our supervisors and funders. When the governance of the CSP — how we, as staff, use our power — aligns with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we act democratically and can call ourselves a democratically governed program.
According to the United Nations, human rights principles are applicable to budgetary allocations and impact whether a nation is said to have “good governance practices.” The World Bank also mentions “financial soundness in the treatment of revenue sources and expenditures” in the context of good governance, which it defines in terms of inclusion, accountability, integrity, and transparency. For us, these observations implied that a truly democratic shelter would have democratic financial practices. In that sense, our efforts at community budgeting are helping us align the economics of the shelter program with our other democratic norms.
What we’re doing is not new. The practice of “participatory budgeting” is a widespread democratic innovation that gives non-elected individuals a chance to be involved in the creation of a public budget. It has earned significant international praise from institutions including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Kingdom Department for International Development. The World Bank considers it a “best practice” in democratic innovation and policymaking. It has also been recognized as a contribution towards the United Nations’ Global Campaign for Good Governance.
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Participatory budgeting began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989 in an effort to encourage democratic culture. By 2013, over 2,500 local governments across Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe were practicing various forms of participatory budgeting. In the Brazilian cities of Porto Alegre and Campinas, 100% of the municipal budget has been allocated through participatory budgeting, though typically cities dedicate between 2% and 10% of the municipal budget towards the process. Cities also vary in terms of whether individuals participate directly, through representatives, or through representative organizations (such as NGOs).
The participatory budgeting model is scalable, meaning it is relevant for use at the sub-municipal level. While existing research does not appear to indicate any use of participatory budgeting in emergency shelter settings, Toronto Community Housing (TCH) in Toronto, Canada uses it with its tenants. TCH has over 164,000 tenants and, like the CSP, uses a community-based governance process in which tenants, property management, and staff collaboratively govern each housing site. TCH graciously provided consultation and guidance for us as we considered the logistics of giving chronically homeless men several hundred dollars in discretionary community funds.
Here’s a closer look at how we do it:
First, we began by clarifying what the criteria for traditional participatory budgeting processes are. Despite widespread variation in how it is done, there are, according to one scholar, five criteria that compose any participatory budgeting process:
- The non-elected people involved must discuss the finances of the budget.
- The municipal (or state) authorities must be involved in some form.
- The process must be ongoing, continual, or repeated.
- The process must include public deliberation.
- There must be accountability for the process and its outcomes.
Next, we adapted these criteria for the shelter in the following way:
- Any shelter guest is welcome to participate in the budgeting process (unless the guests determine that they want representatives to be responsible for it).
- The shelter guests must discuss the shelter’s food budget, engage in deliberation about it, and make decisions about it.
- The shelter leadership staff must be present for these discussions and involved in them.
- The budgeting process must be ongoing.
- The shelter leadership staff must be accountable for implementing the guests’ decisions or providing reasonable justification for why they cannot be implemented (i.e. We do not have the facilities or tools to prepare a certain food item, a guest has a severe allergy to a certain food item, a certain food item must be imported, etc.).
We also clarified the main reasons why we wanted to practice community budgeting.
First, we wanted our guests to have an increased sense of self-determination, control, and power in their world. We wanted to do this by giving them discretionary funds to purchase food that they wanted — not what other people had prepared for them, or that they had to scrounge for, or even beg for. Guests at this particular shelter have historically managed the shelter’s kitchen, but without the opportunity to obtain and prepare food of their choosing. Instead, most of their responsibility involved heating up donated casseroles, preparing coffee, and assisting volunteer groups.
Second, we wanted to strengthen the democratic culture and norms in our shelter program by giving the guests an additional forum for exercising self-governance. Guests in this shelter already had a longstanding practice of managing the shelter’s rules, cleaning supplies, sleeping mat supply, and other housekeeping routines. Various cohorts of shelter guests had consistently demonstrated an interest in self-governance and the ability to do it. In that sense, they had demonstrated their willingness to show up for democracy. Giving the shelter its own budget meant we, as staff, would demonstrate our willingness to show up for it too.
Third, we wanted to deepen the experience of community in our shelter by giving extra attention and resources to the bedrock of all human communities: food. By including food and food budgeting in our weekly decision-making meetings, we could encourage guests to have more personal, perhaps joyful conversations. Instead of talking primarily about chores, resource management, and interpersonal conflicts, they could talk about what food they enjoyed eating, enjoyed preparing, and enjoyed sharing. Perhaps, we thought, it could make the shelter feel more communal and less institutional.
Once we knew what we wanted to do and why, we ironed out a crucial detail: the money itself. We decided to begin with allocating $100 per month towards the community food budget, with the opportunity for the budget to increase $50 every month if guests avoided a budget deficit. This would allow guests to earn more funds for their food budget, while also having to collaborate to manage an increasingly larger budget.
Managing $100 per month easily lends itself to one large shopping trip and dedicating all the money towards breakfast foods, for example. But $300, on the other hand, invites new conversations about dividing the budget for multiple trips, planning for more expensive special meals vs. cheaper staples, etc. More options means deeper conversations — and more skill-building.
We also decided that any unused funds would roll over to the next month, giving guests the option of saving money for larger purchases (such as a special holiday dinner). We also decided that, to avoid mishaps, the guests themselves would not handle any funds. Instead, once they had determined how they wanted to spend the money, staff would make the corresponding transactions and deliveries. To provide some structure and focus to the process, we decided that the monthly funds would take the form of gift cards to Aldi supermarkets. With the logistics in place, we then began the fun part—spending the money.
Here’s an example of what our community budgeting process looks like in action:
During one of our weekly community meetings, I asked the men to begin thinking about how they wanted to use that month’s funds in broad categorical terms. For example, did they want to use it for breakfast, snacks, or dinner? The men decided that they wanted to allocate all of the funds for breakfast, since volunteers provided dinner every night in the form of home-cooked meals or donated casseroles. I then asked the men to decide what specific items they would include on their shopping list. This list included, in no particular order: milk, waffles, sausage, iced tea mix, eggs, hot cereal, bacon, pancake mix, and tuna fish. I then asked them to rank these items in order of importance, which yielded the following prioritized list: sausage, iced tea mix, bacon, eggs, pancake mix, milk, waffles, cereal, and tuna fish.
After the meeting, I researched prices for each item on that list. The next day, I gave the guests a chart that listed each item (i.e. “Beef sausage”), a standard unit for each item (i.e. “1 box with 18 patties”), a reference price for each unit (i.e. “$5.19 per box), and a question: With this information in mind, how much of each item should we get? Each guest provided his answers. I then calculated an average desired quantity per item, a total cost per item, and a total cost for the shopping list. The initial results indicated that the guests were over budget by $66.23 — a very significant deficit.
That day, I met with one of the shelter guests who was recognized as a community elder for his role in helping manage the kitchen. I explained the budget deficit to him and asked him how he would address it. He made several recommendations, which included: removing tuna from the list because it was the most expensive category overall and the lowest priority overall; removing waffles from the list, because the pancake mix could be used with a waffle-maker to make waffles; reducing the number of boxes of pancake mix, and compensating for the reduction by adding more water to the batter; reducing the number of boxes of tea, since food items should be prioritized and the shelter already provides coffee; and removing milk, another lower priority item on the list. His recommendations eliminated the budget deficit entirely, and that night we discussed them with the other guests for final approval.
The guests agreed to most of his suggestions. But they felt ambivalent about removing milk because of the role it played as coffee creamer. After some deliberation, though, they approved the decision and decided to replace milk with powdered coffee creamer. They offered three reasons for doing this: first, they thought it was a cost effective way to obtain a larger amount of creamer for coffee; second, it would last longer than milk because it would not spoil as quickly and because some people would use the milk as a beverage, depleting the supply more quickly; and third, powered creamer would not cool the temperature of the coffee, which they wanted to remain hot.
The men also decided to remove cereal from the list when we learned that the shelter had obtained a donation of three large boxes of hot cereal. The men then decided that the funds originally allocated to milk and hot cereal should be used to increase the amount of sausage and eggs. After some quick calculations, it was revealed that the revised total cost was $97.64—well within their budget that month.
As part of this process, our chronically homeless shelter guests had to do something simple but very important: they had to talk with each other. They couldn’t just anonymously share space: they had to negotiate with each other, accommodate competing priorities, and think about what made sense for the community overall, not just their own appetites. They had to practice being in community. Along the way, several men even had a chance to demonstrate new sides of themselves. For example, the celebrated suggestion to replace milk with powdered coffee creamer came from a long-term shelter guest who had previously been disliked by other guests for his lower personal hygiene standards.
However, during the budgeting process, the other guests found space to offer him appreciation and thanks for finding a way to get them more coffee creamer for less money. While they still feel frustration about his hygiene, it’s no longer the singular thing they recognize about him. Bit by bit, this is the way community happens — through opportunities to gather together, as equals, to democratically decide the rules we are going to live by and how to share the resources at our disposal.
At Bethesda Project, it’s also the way we provide shelter.-30-
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