The Homeless, Part VII: Liberation is Yours
Last 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 this blog) prompted me to republish it here.
This is part 7.
Liberation is Yours
In the last blog, we said that the most Christian posture toward the homeless is repentance. But to repent is not merely to feel bad about what you have done and promise not to do it again. Repentance is constructive action toward a different way of life--toward different systems. We do not stop at “sorry,” but offer Jesus the Liberator to the person with their back against the wall. Jesus’ death for the sins of the world is a rich and multivalent fact. When it is reduced to a savior who died to free people from the penalties of their personal sins, we extend a gospel that is stuck in individualistic homelessness theories and has nothing to say in regard to the forces of oppression that actually generate their circumstances. Street folks are the most evangelized people group in any city. Unfortunately, the gospel we extend fails to address their reality and instead unintentionally blames the victim. Good news for the oppressed is to hear that the sin-tainted structures destroying your life have been overcome by the power of the Lamb and he has provided liberation.
However, there are other ways to speak about Jesus with those who suffer. We can talk about how “Jesus’ death exposed the futility and helplessness of the systems of evil, and behind them, God’s ultimate enemy, Satan (cf. Col 2:15)” (Geddert, All Right Now, 5). We can exalt in that glorious moment of resurrection when Sin, Death, Satan and Powers and Principalities were all defeated. We can tell about how sinfulness became enshrined in the structures of our society, how this led to oppression, and how Jesus’ victory provided power for liberation and a new world of shalom.
Through Jesus, the homeless themselves can be empowered as liberators and shalom builders.
“It is this revolutionary cry that is granted in the resurrection of Jesus. Liberation then is not simply what oppressed people can accomplish alone; it is basically what God has done and will do to accomplish liberation both in and beyond history. Indeed, because we know that death has been conquered, we are set free to fight for liberation in history--knowing that we have a ‘home over yonder’” (Cone, God of the Oppressed, 147).
In this sense, evangelism is less a one-directional proclamation of truth than a process of dialogue through which the homeless can better comprehend their spiritual, economic and socio-political situation, rediscover their identity as human beings who can take an active role in shaping their world for justice, and be ‘on-ramped’ into the business of shalom alongside Jesus. 
Finally, as Christians we seek to walk with the homeless in solidarity for their liberation. Much has been said on how to be people of genuine value with the poor. Recently, books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity have challenged us to recognize different genres of poverty so that we can respond with the appropriate strategy: relief, rehabilitation, or development. There is great wisdom in these cautions, however major problems occur when we misdiagnose what is in front of us. If Christians maintain individualistic notions of homelessness (particularly of the chronically homeless) then we can easily abdicate our responsibility to provide immediate relief in the belief that this is ultimately crippling, that it will “hurt the poor.” But to be homeless is to be in crisis, no matter how long you have been on the street and how accustomed to its lifestyle you have become.
Recognizing the crisis level of homelessness means acting on multiple fronts at the same time. I normally would advocate to begin a transformational strategy with Freirian techniques so that the marginalized person is positioned for leadership in the developmental process. However, in this case the radical instability of homelessness requires immediate outside intervention in order for relationship and ongoing dialogue to have a functionable environment and effective degree of consistency. In the poignant words of housing advocate Ed Loring, “housing precedes life.”  Before someone can hold down a job, they need the stability of a home. Before healthcare systems can effectively improve a person’s wellbeing, they need to get out of the rain and cold. Before someone can get over an addiction, they need a house that can stop the chaos around them and relieve the depression of hopelessness. If the Church is to be the Church, they need to serve the homeless through immediate housing services. Housing must come first. 
From housing, followers of Jesus must turn toward effecting transformation of the many systems which collude to produce homelessness. The world is beginning to wake up to the fact that our political economy is failing across a multitude of indicators. Just over a month ago a group of over 400 activists, policymakers, practitioners, business people, and scholars signed a major statement called the Next System Crisis Statement. It named the following:
“Today’s political economic system is not programmed to secure the wellbeing of people, place and planet. Instead, its priorities are corporate profits, the growth of GDP, and the projection of national power. If we are to address the manifold challenges we face in a serious way, we need to think through and then build a new political economy that takes us beyond the current system that is failing all around us. However difficult the task, however long it may take, systemic problems require systemic solutions.”
As a people who can easily recognize the paradigmatic gap between biblical visions of shalom and the homelessness-producing systems of the modern world, the people of God can readily agree with this statement and need to lend all our strength, creativity and worldview insights to this task. Globalized, neoclassical capitalism is not the sanctified, unquestionable will of God. Democracy can function far more robustly than the money-driven, exclusivist, quagmired structures we currently maintain. New systems are needed and we stand at a moment in history when enormous energy is gathering around a movement for change. It is a wonderful opportunity for Christians to collaborate with others for the common good. The point is worth repeating: people will continue to fall onto our streets until the systems change. 
Change work has to happen at every scale, micro and macro, local and global. The church can be part of creating alternatives to societies’ oppressive institutions: affordable housing, social enterprises for employment and professional development, financial institutions for savings and loans, co-ops for democratic ownership. We can also help drive the built environment and public spaces like parks toward vibrancy. This is the vital work of community development that creates an equitable world in which such an extreme form of marginalization like homelessness is no longer even imaginable. In addition to development, churches have close ties with the community that give them a strategic place in organizing people together to advocate for change. Through organizing and advocating for systemic changes, people of faith can help change the rules of the game to foster a world in which all thrive.
Finally, Christians are able to play a unique role in a homeless person’s journey from the street back to wholeness. As followers of Jesus, we know that housing is a wonderful first step, but that alone it falls far short of the shalom-homes we believe everyone was created to enjoy. Our goals are far loftier! Kimberly Dovey says: “Home is a relationship that is created and evolved over time; it is not consumed like the products of economic process. The house is a tool for the achievement of the experience of home.”  Bouma-Prediger and Walsh go on to explain what a home truly is in its richest form: “Home is, minimally, where they have to take us in, like it or not. Ideally, it is where we are loved and cherished even though we are known. Home is where we have a shot at being forgiven” (66). A home is the place where the stranger can become the host, a place of stability, a place that roots one’s identity, and a place of security. It is a place where relationships are whole, where love and warmth abound. As the Church, we recognize that it is not enough to simply stick someone inside an apartment and call it good. Instead, we know that life is about relationships well lived, and that those who have been excluded and discarded need a loving family to gather around them for the long haul. The systemic solution is not simply housing the homeless--important as that is. It is providing homes for the homeless, in all the richness and familial love implied by that term.
CCDA practitioners pride ourselves on neighborhood-based methodologies. Unfortunately, this focus typically leads us to work a step or two away from hands-on homelessness ministry. This is a shame. Homelessness is an ultimate sign of neighborhood failure. As ministers of the ‘hood, we have to see this connection. Our goal is a world in which no more people live on the streets, where everyone has a home in every shalom-imbued sense of that term.
That is my dream, and it is where I want to end this series of essays to end. But I find my heart unwilling to do so. While history may someday find its completion among the mansions God is building for us, my conclusion needs to stop in the present, not in a dream. Tonight, hundreds of thousands will end this day without a home. Their ongoing suffering does not have an immediate end in sight, and they resist my BS pie-in-the-sky religiosity. Paul’s story in particular stops me short. Paul broke all the stereotypes. He was a former aeronautical engineer who once worked on the air force base east of Colorado Springs. Brilliant and hard working, he still lost his job when his contractor downsized. Not long after his wife left as well. Paul fell into drinking, lost most of his property and eventually lost his home. After ten years on the street, he pulled it together. I met him on the way back up. He came with his ubiquitous jean jacket and mullet to our social service office every day to work on the computer, make phone calls and seek opportunities. He got up at four to get Labor Ready temp work. Then one day, he was approved for a Housing First program and got off the streets. I got to be there when he found out and we celebrated. Several months passed and I did not see him. Then one day, I was helping organize a yearly vigil for the homeless who pass away called The Longest Night. While gathering the names of that year’s deceased, a woman on the other end of my phone said Paul’s name. “Paul?,” I said, “Are you sure? The guy who always wore the jean jacket?” Yes, she said. He died in his apartment a couple months after moving in.
Even when everything seems to line up, the deck has been stacked against some people for so long that they never get to see the other side. I cried for a good twenty minutes after that phone call, wondering if I might be the only one who wept for Paul. Tears need not be equated to hopelessness. Sadness is too often associated with fatalism. This is not what I am talking about. Lamentation does not need to mire us in cynicism or inaction. Rather it can be the grief of a lover who sets out to avenge their lost one. It is a sadness that produces a holy anger, not toward any person, but toward evil. If we do not lament the pain and loss of our loved ones, we dishonor them. Sadness arises because you love the one who is being injured. Out of love, we will fight for justice in faith that our God has already won the decisive victory. But for this moment, let us lament.
Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches!
Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord!
Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children,
who faint for hunger at the head of every street.
 - I would describe this as evangelism as inspired by Paulo Freire. His books Education for Critical Consciousness and Pedagogy of the Oppressed provide a fresh, empowering methodology for evangelism that allows both “teacher” and “learner” to encounter Christ together in conversation, to honor the stories and wisdom of both parties, and to be mutually conversion in that process.
 - quoted by Bouma-Prediger and Walsh in Beyond Homelessness
 - For Christians, this is not merely instrumental, impersonal sheltering, but implies intimate hospitality. I wish there was space to explore the richness of this theme and its radical implications for everyday life in a world of people without homes! A wonderful reflection on the subject is Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests.
 - For space limitations, I am not going to go into what these new systems might be, but the reader should know that a wealth of valuable resources exist pouring out of many of the world’s brightest minds. Starting points include: E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful; Daly & Cobb, For the Common Good; Liu and Hanauer, The Gardens of Democracy; McKibben, Deep Economy; Powell, Racing to Justice.
 - quoted in Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, Beyond Homelessness, 57-58.