The Homeless, Part I
This April I wrote a paper on homelessness for one of my seminary classes. The recent anti-homeless laws passed in Berkeley (which I talked about in the last blog) prompted me to republish it here. This is part 1.
Yesterday I found myself in conversation with Christina. These days she is fighting back against her slumlord apartment manager. Bad as that sounds, things have not always been this good. Christina grew up against significant odds, born within a highly dysfunctional, generationally impoverished family. Her husband has been in and out of prison (he gets out in a couple weeks), and she has too. Her lack of strong social ties, slim resume and alcoholic coping habits have made things pretty tough. Amidst these struggles, Christina found herself on and off the street. As she said, “Last time was about a year ago when I was homeless on the West Side.” All this has been particularly hard on her three kids.
As we talked, I found myself remembering other friends of mine who are all too familiar with concrete nights. I thought of the time I met Dale panhandling a downtown Houston off-ramp. He was a couple months out of prison, but with no identification papers of any kind he'd found it just about impossible to land a steady job or place to live, much less access the social safety net. Then I pictured Merl with a big, goofy grin on his face when he told us in absolute honesty, “I’m addicted to milk!” And he was. Sober as could be, but would never go a day without dairy. We grabbed him a gallon and a new bike tube that afternoon. Ed was under a different bridge on that same highway. A veteran who suffered from debilitating PTSD flashbacks, he was a highly intelligent, avid reader whose disability kept him from holding a job.
As far as I know, Rich and Larry are best buds to this day, sipping Wild Turkey between AA meetings. It took six months of friendship building before I got up the courage to ask if I could stay with them over Memorial Day weekend. Those three days were the closest I have ever been to seeing the world as a homeless person sees it. They make me think of Mary Anne and Robert, long-term partners who lived together on the creek south of downtown Colorado Springs. He was a huge, grizzled guy, kind as they come, who always looked out for his much smaller soulmate. I pray I never forget the choked up hug Rob gave me when she left him. It was not unlike the hug Jacob--AIDS patient, brilliant chef, gay, repeatedly rejected--gave before he left town for more secure housing with a distant family member.
Then there is Shannon, whom I loved and miss so dearly. But there aren't enough pages to tell her story here.
These old friends makes this a hard paper to write. It catches me red handed where cynicism has snuck in over the past several years. After all, at least two of these folks are dead, most are still homeless, and all struggle on in one way or another. The presentness of their pain is arresting. It rebels against overly clinical analyses of the homeless as though they are a “population,” and homelessness as though it were an issue or cause. My emotion is important; it rises out of relationship, and without relationship there will never be transformation. However, it is partially people’s emotional reactions to homelessness that are the problem. When emotions slip into emotionalism they soon terminate in unquestionable ideologies, stymieing critical thought. The homeless service “industry” is chronically devoid of innovation for exactly this reason. Therefore, in this paper I strive for criticality without negating the personal contexts my thought has emerged from. Since all thought is unavoidably contextual anyways, this seems like the right framework for the task at hand.
The second reason this paper is difficult is because of the jarring dissonance I experience when my knowledge outpaces my obedience--or, less critically, when the source of my frustration does not line up with my present call. I do not know how directly or deeply I will be connected to homeless ministry in the future. I had fairly well walked away from this group until the past few months when God, I suppose, prompted me to include them as a research subject for this class. Re-engaging has felt a bit like rediscovering a missing piece of myself.
It is from this liminal position that I now turn to engage the fact of homelessness. Who are the homeless? I mostly skip over this broad question. They are too diverse a group to adequately capture, and I am not interested in narrowing down to subcategories like families, children or the “chronically” homeless. For my purposes, ‘homeless’ will simply represent its tautology: those without a home. My interest is this: Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the history of the world consistently has between 1 to 2% of its people sleeping on the street, in their cars or bumming on a family members couch every night? And what can we the Church do about it?
 - All names have been changed (except for Shannon's) to protect the persons' privacy.
 - See MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?; Dyrness, Learning About Theology from the Third World. I am also reminded of the fantastic introduction to Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace where he wrestles with his unavoidably subjective memories of genocide while seeking to articulate an objectively meaningful theological response to the evil he experienced.