Web Archive‎ > ‎2013‎ > ‎2013: QTR 1‎ > ‎03 March‎ > ‎

On Homelessness

In recent months I was made truly homeless for the first time in my life at age 51.  Once, back in my 20s, I slept in my car for several weeks. But in those days I had unmarried friends with whom I could temporarily stay and jobs were plentiful. America didn’t have millions of long-term unemployed, discouraged unemployed or six million unemployed working age youth that are now the “new normal” of neo-liberal economics.

As a Christian I am sent among the homeless to help where I can and bear witness. The signs of God’s grace and presence are many among the homeless.  More than I expected. The best and worst behaviors among them that I have witnessed have been exhibited by more affluent Christians trying to either positively interact with them out of simple love and conscience, or to scapegoat and shun them out of fear, racism and indoctrinated class contempt.

During the winter holi-day season, those who showed the most com-passion to the home-less on the street that I saw were not large contingents from wealthy local churches or synagogues. They were usually one car-load of people, or one family, or a couple of sisters who took it up-on themselves to load up the car with some snacks, or small meals, boxes of fruit, bottled water, socks, under-wear or hygiene kits and pass them out to as many folks as possible until they ran out.

The inhabitants of the streets and shelters were glad to receive these things and never complained when they ran out but thanked them for what they did. Conversations between donors and recipients broke out on all kinds of subjects and encouraged many to be more open-hearted. Blessings were voiced by both givers and receivers. One time a family of Hispanics pulled into the lot across the street and began passing out small meals of macaroni and beef in little folded containers. They couldn’t speak a word of English but, using smiles and gestures, they were received with smiles, nodding heads, and blessings.
There are at least two Baptist churches and one Methodist church from outside of Atlanta that send large delegations on a weekly basis—several buses full. They have lots of energized high school age kids who like to invite the homeless to pray with them individually or as a group. Though they have little life ex-perience to inform their prayers for often much older homeless people, these kids do have the earnestness of youth and a sincere desire to help. That can mean a lot to homeless individuals engaged in very lonely and grim struggles.

Sometimes these church groups bring live music or .mp3 players and sound systems. They pass out everything from hamburgers and hot dogs, to gift baggies with winter hats, gloves, T-shirts and little flashlights, to donuts, cupcakes, muf-fins, strudel and steaming Styrofoam cups of tea or hot chocolate.

Then there are several local churches right in the downtown area who operate soup kitchens for at least one meal a day, sometimes more, every weekday and a few on Saturday and Sunday. They do this day after day, week after week. Each church’s soup kitchen is different, but most begin their meals with prayer. Some have bible study before certain meals.  

This morning I attended one such bible study at Crossroads Ministries. A young black man sang two a capella gos-pel songs in a very soulful and moving performance to loud applause. Then a woman in her 40s conducted a bible lesson from the Book of Acts. Clyde, the chief cook who usually leads the pre-lunch prayer, was in rare form beaming his char-acteristic smile and bobbing and praying during the songs. He is one of those truly hap-py folk who found his niche of service to the Lord; who live almost every minute in the Spirit, in gratitude, thriving by serving and doing their best to shine God’s uplifting light on those less for-tunate.

My favorite little sub-community of the homeless meets for lunch every weekday up the back stairs behind St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church on North Avenue. They serve a hot lunch and every repeat visitor is expected do some work to help prepare for, serve or clean up after the meals. They are thus encouraged to become part of the church community through service as a two-way street.    

The chef at this estab-lishment is an elderly Jewish man named Harold—a marvel at both eliciting food donations and working miracles in the kitchen. His former profession was demography. I was astonished when I found out he was homeless. He is a thorny but fair character who doesn’t put up with shenanigans. He takes his work seriously and when he enters the room people listen. The folks who run this fel-lowship also require a group participatory prayer before every meal where everyone is encouraged to speak their own prayer out loud—nothing too fancy.

Listening to these men’s and women’s humble prayers I’ve twice been moved to tears and felt the presence of God quite pal-pable in the room. The silences between the prayers while some consider what was said and some prepare to pray from the heart and the Spirit are also powerfully charged.  

I’ve seen deeply troubled people who hear voices in their heads and speak constantly to themselves out loud on the streets calmed and quiet in rapt attention to these earnest pleas before God. I’ve heard grizzled veterans of the streets taking pity on and praying for the spiritual healing and mental and physical curing of their fellow homeless whose suffering they’ve been exposed to every day in close proximity—often for years unto death. [Seeing ambulances outside the shelter to convey the body of an elderly homeless man on the first step to a pauper’s grave is a common occurrence. Some of them die nameless mysteries to all but God.]

The prayers one hears in this place are not often learned, but some come as close to perfect as I’ve ever heard. What surprised me was that there are far more prayers for the community of homeless and their church friends than for self-focused personal needs.     

I hear the words, “Father God” begin many prayers. To think about Him as “Our Father who art in heaven” often seems so far away compared to thinking about Him as “Father God” who is right here in this room like a biological father or community elder hearing his children’s requests.

It’s hard to convey impressions of God’s grace upon my fellow homeless human beings in an objective way. Unless one has been homeless with them, shared some of their feelings about such an existence, learned a bit about their individual lives, and their sense of where they, in particular, and things in general are going in the world--a lot of the feelings just don’t trans-late.  

Many of us work sporadic or part-time jobs. These are jobs that ei-ther lack enough hours or high enough wages for us to afford to get out of the shelters or off the streets. This is also part of the post-2008 “new normal” for our economy. In addition to the working poor we now have the working homeless. Government subsidized off-shoring of jobs, insufficient domestic job creation, and Federal Reserve-abetted inflation (Quantitative Easing III) is pushing the ability to make ends meet further and further out of more people's reach.

The homeless know some people care about them but that most could either care less or view them with nothing but contempt. They know the physically ambulatory among them can do the soup kitchen walk-about to keep a full belly. They also know that bread alone does not make a life.

Having grown up listening to family stories about the Great Depression, I’ve noticed one big difference between that America that pulled together and this one that keeps pulling apart: During the Depression most Americans recognized that even a govern-ment jobs program that keeps a person working doing the most simple but needful work helps preserve that person’s self-esteem and mental and physical health. They earned their bread in the Civilian Conservation Corps and other Depression-era work programs. They also earned enough to meaningfully help their families.

Today many homeless folks without felonies have food stamps but little or nothing else. If they have felonies they receive no food stamps and must frequently resort to soup kitchens, food donated to shelters or begging for food money. Neither of these groups have much self-esteem, and they know most present-day Americans could care less. Their bodies and minds decay with idle years of “slow economic recovery.”

The ugly fact is the neo-liberalized private sectors in America and the EU no longer create enough low wage jobs, let alone enough middle-class jobs that pay enough to support a family. The divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" grows ever wider and is rapidly be-coming a generational divide.

Psychologically disturbed or damaged homeless individuals who are not capable of holding down a job or caring in other respects for themselves are considered fully expendable in 21st century America. Most of them know this as well. They’ve seen other psychologically afflicted homeless people die alone in the streets because they couldn’t relate to the mentally healthier ones in the shelters. Imagine living with that sword of Damocles hanging over your head every day of your life. Prior to 1981, for decades the Federal government subsidized the states to house and care for these individuals suffering from psychological problems that are not their fault and are often beyond their control.  

The graces being ex-changed by those homeless who are trying to preserve their self-esteem, hope, humanity and sanity are easier to understand. Being kind and respectful when interacting. Trying to be helpful to one another when we can. Trying to give each other useful information. Trying to be peace-makers when others argue too heat-edly. The naturally cheery ones trying to cheer others. How we study and listen to each other. The expressions of regret about past sins. Dealing with the scars from wrongs done to us. The struggles to overcome addictions to drugs, alcohol, defeatism, cynicism or anger.

That many homeless people in crowded shelters with poor plumbing, with various types of psychological problems, substance abuse problems, felonies, etc., often behave very badly or dress shabbily or smell awfully is predictable given their backgrounds. Their numbers are proliferating in a real economy experiencing domestic structural and wage declines (simultaneous with all-time record corporate profits thanks to off-shoring and deferred taxation of offshore corporate profits for up to a decade or more in some cases).  

What should be less predictable is the complacency of those of us who are or who have been much more fortunate with respect to how we respond to Jesus’ call. His call to us is to reason together in His name and, for those of us who can, to mission straight into these and other needless social ills; to faithfully shine some lights, expend some elbow grease and together, calling on God’s help, change course towards the Kingdom. 

---Will Mason