Most people spend their winters trying to get away from the cold. During the winter of 1986-1987, Michael Stoops slept on the streets of Washington, D.C., trying to draw attention to the issue of homelessness in America. It worked.
With sadness, I note Michael's passing today. Michael helped found the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., in 1980 and joined the staff in 1989. Before moving to D.C., he was the chairman of Burnside Community Council in Portland, Oregon, for well over a decade. Michael was also my friend and colleague of 30 years in the fight to end homelessness.
The now-defunct council operated Baloney Joe's, a multi-service center for homeless men, and the West Women's and Children's Shelter, which is still open today. His advocacy in the mid-1980s was crucial to the passage of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan after enormous political pressure, and which is still the federal government's primary response to homelessness.
Whatever good Michael did to try and end homelessness — and he did much good — his accomplishments are forever overshadowed by a tabloid newspaper report in 1987 that accused Michael of sexually abusing teens staying at Baloney Joe's. The story appeared just as Burnside Community Council made plans to open a new shelter in Portland's Old Town, which developers hoped to turn into a high-end neighborhood. Walk through the North Park Blocks today and you see the developers got what they wanted. A shelter did not fit their plans.
Law enforcement investigated the allegations and found no reason to bring charges. The Burnside Community Council hired an attorney to conduct an independent investigation, and that investigation, sadly, found evidence that Michael had had relationships with clients (over 18) at Baloney Joe's. Michael appropriately resigned, his resignation was accepted by the board of directors, and Michael lived the rest of his life under the shadow of his mistakes.
Michael saw no distinction between those who were housed and homeless. He took no salary for his work and lived in low-income housing. He counted people experiencing homelessness as part of his social circle. He took his meals at Baloney Joe's. Nevertheless, it is never appropriate for the leader of a social service agency to have intimate relations with anyone who is a client.
The Stoops story was a remarkable, pre-internet national sensation. On Nov. 27, 1988, a year after the charges first came to light, The Dallas Morning News ran a front-page story that struck at the heart of the scandal:
"When he spent a winter of subfreezing nights sleeping on a steam grate in Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal aid, locals called him a latter-day Albert Schweitzer and a hometown Mother Teresa. Then, a year ago this week, after Stoops announced plans to move the homeless shelter he headed into a downtown area earmarked for development, they called him a child molester."
While the investigation led to no charges, in 1987, it wasn't uncommon for gay men to be labeled pedophiles. In 1988, Oregonians would vote for an anti-gay ballot measure that played on false and ugly stereotypes of gay men prevalent at the time.
Michael Stoops was a flawed human being. Like former President Bill Clinton or former Portland Mayor Sam Adams, Michael faltered in his personal life. It is not unfair to judge people by their mistakes, but it is also worth taking into account the totality of their lives.
At the National Coalition for the Homeless, Michael started a campaign to allow homeless people to vote without an address. Many states now follow that rule. He spearheaded an effort to track hate crimes against individuals living on our streets. Michael organized a national network of street newspapers, which includes Portland's Street Roots. And the foundational McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act adopted in the '80s is still the backbone of our federal response to ending homelessness.
As clergy, I recognize that being human is messy. We all have to be held accountable when our actions cross ethical lines. For all Michael's flaws, I hope he will also be remembered for his accomplishments. For now, I offer prayers for peace for his family, colleagues, those he helped escape homelessness, those he hurt when he failed and for his friends, along with a special prayer that we might end homelessness and poverty in this generation.
The Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie served on the board of Burnside Community Council from 1987-1991 and on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless from 1998-2002.