Milder months, many men live on the streets or in the woods instead of calling the shelter; this phrase resurfaces from grants research this afternoon. What constitutes “mild,” I wonder? It has been raining in
Delaware for nearly three days straight–bitter cold sleet and pelting hail split through the sky this afternoon as I worked. Now at night, warm and writing in my bed, the rain continues its frozen, harsh sweeping against our rooftop and windows. Is this considered “tolerable”? Where do people go on a night like this?
I find myself meditating on the state of the weather frequently:
Wilmington brothas and sistas caught out in the rain again, people human as me unsheltered, exposed, threatened across the globe for a variety of reasons. I don’t know whether to be amazed or appalled that the security of my shelter has never involuntarily been called into question–though I will not hesitate to espouse my utmost gratitude, at the fact that I have been continuously fed and housed!
I can’t pretend to understand or agree with the distribution of windfalls and blows as they play out in life. By our sin, we have created a world of trouble and we wait, and work in the meantime, for God’s restoration. Many–not all–will experience bouts, even lifetimes of poverty and pangs of believed or real hunger, but many of us cannot imagine the combination of suffering that collides among individuals who consistently cannot feed, care for or properly house themselves. As a matter of birth, as a matter of circumstance, I have never suffered such grave realities as perpetually numb limbs, clothing that refuses to thaw or dry, a hungry and aching belly that grows more restless and volatile over time, and rain that keeps coming and coming and never stops. I haven’t even been close to this sort of desperation, and although many people live it every day, (because of a variety of factors), I may never. Even so, this insulation from suffering does not remove me from a responsibility to know and care for my neighbors as I would love and care for my own family or my own self.
Writing this, I wonder where the men–mostly men who are unsheltered–and women, children, “unaccompanied youth,” elderly, users, veterans, felons and jobless are staying. Who was turned away and who is sleeping in an abandoned car tonight, by the boulders under the overpass, under some ramshackle picnic table in a hidden corner of the park? I flash back to late October: an elderly woman hunched and rocking under that churchyard evergreen on our way to the Indian restaurant–the one who as we were leaving some two hours later, was still hunched over her cart, motionless and sleeping, nested as a human bird. I wonder where she ended up. I’ve never seen a tree so sickly, and that black wrought iron fence–crippled and half-sinking to the ground in front of her. A grown woman imprisoned in thought and in body. An effigy of society’s failure to fully love our neighbors as ourselves.
Soon it will be winter solstice–the longest night of the year–perhaps the coldest. Even colder back home in Wisconsin I hear, twenty-five degrees below zero with snow and ice: what are the homeless doing there? Did the shelters have to turn folks away again, to hide next to the frozen library shipping dock, crouch along the back stairs of the former courthouse building, the deserted back alleyways between dumpsters and stacks of discarded boxes? Is tall Stan with the blue bomber jacket and size 13 boots still warming circles into the sidewalks at 4 am? Has Harry from Wittenberg parked his cart for good this winter? I pray some kind people have welcomed these wayfarers to refuge within the halls of their businesses and buildings, the warmth of their company–even if only for a couple of hours. Still, I can guarantee millions have been left to roam tonight, left to sleep on metal heating grates in arctic cities across America, hoping the vent burns don’t cut any deeper, praying they don’t get kicked off to face certain death before dawn.
I have been writing of course, only of unsheltered homeless, the most obvious and visible of homeless and poor populations in our country, but many more suffering brothers and sisters exist in every facet of our lives: young and old, thick and thin, bundled in rags and filling designer suits. You won’t recognize homeless persons serving you coffee, washing the office windows, cleaning your bathroom at work or checking the garbage at the airport. You may not recognize the man reading in the library with the suitcase or the studious first grader at her desk as homeless. Homeless are your neighbors down the street who silently struggled under first and second mortgages and now sleep doubled-up with relatives; homeless is the mother and three kids escaping an abusive husband and father the next town over; homeless is the sixty-two year old woman who never got to finish high school and has never had it easy finding steady employment since her factory job shipped overseas. Homeless as well, are the veterans who faithfully served, risking life and limb in foreign territory so that we might be free–free to build oversized-mansions-for-one, drive unsustainable gas-war-and pollution-mongering machines the whole world over, free to live “The American Dream” far from insecurity, far from the suffering masses, in complete selfish euphoria–and what has been their reward? A monthly government check that falls a hundred and fifty dollars short of securing any sort of housing–even substandard–poor healthcare if any, and the inability to adequately feed and clothe one’s self with dignity and respect.
Of some 3.5 million Americans who experience homelessness in one year, one in four is a child under the age of ten, 42 percent are under the age of five, 23 percent are families in urban areas with increased incidences in rural areas, 52 percent of these families are turned away from shelters due to overcrowding compared to 37 percent of homeless individuals. 65 percent of homeless families are comprised of female members, while 67.5 percent of the entire single homeless population is male. 41 percent of homeless persons work. And about 40 percent of homeless men have served in the US armed forces (2007 U.S. Conference of Mayors annual study of homelessness). According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, roughly 200,000 men and women veterans go to sleep each night without a roof over their heads. Even more, Delaware’s 2008 Point-in-Time Study reveals that of the 1,556 persons found homeless on a single night in January, 60 percent were black, 32 percent were white and 4 percent Hispanic. Of these, 13 percent were veterans and 44 percent had a monthly income below $500.
There is something seriously criminal about the magnitude of these statistics; and for these individuals, the reality of their daily struggles are much graver than we can understand. It is true, we live in a fallen, unjust world because of our shared histories of sin: creation will not be fully restored until Christ comes again. And today, I can say with confidence: “I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor” (Psalm 140:12). Jesus Himself was born in the cold of an impromptu shelter, fled Egypt as a refugee with his family, proclaimed having “no place to lay his head” where even simple foxes and birds have homes (Matt. 8:20), and proceeded to die a death disowned by the world, by His people, and ultimately by God; thereafter, His body was laid in a borrowed tomb and He arose on the third day to new life. Jesus suffered true homelessness and displacement so that we don’t ever have to–because He took on earthly flesh and has taken our place as the perfect sacrifice for our imperfection, a final resting place has already been prepared for us with God in heaven. Eternally, homelessness will be obsolete. No one who is with God will suffer alone.
Still it is clear, while on earth God requires all believers to act with justice, mercy, humbleness and kindness on behalf of the poor and homeless: “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other” (Zechariah 7:10); “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body” (Hebrews 13:3); “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31). Isaiah describes spiritual fasting in like terms: “…share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, clothe him, and [do] not turn away from your own flesh and blood” (58: 6-7). The New Testament is even more clear, just read the red lettering! In Matthew 25 after describing how “the righteous” will feed, clothe, shelter, care for, and visit their brothers and sisters, Jesus reminds us: “whatever you did unto the least of these, that you also did unto me.”
Several years ago, when I first came into more adult realizations of worldly injustice, Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution helped bring much of my righteous anger into focus: “Over and over” he writes, “when I ask God why all of these injustices are allowed to exist in the world, I can feel the spirit whisper to me, ‘You tell me why we allow this to happen. You are my body, my hands, my feet.'” Our Hope is secure, but we are challenged daily to live by faith, to live out Jesus’ commands: faith unaccompanied by action is dead. We who have been gifted with new life cannot truly receive the full rewards of our freedom if we don’t also share life and love, food and shelter with our neighbors, if we don’t daily proclaim the gospel with our actions, if we forget to pray and act for the coming of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus the suffering and gracious Servant prompts us to stand up, follow Him, follow His example and find new life.
So, what can be done?
Don’t simply walk on by–take time to listen and to be present. Empower a sister to be heard; lend a brother an ear, then a hand. Don’t be afraid. Also, don’t assume that simply because someone’s available, that they want to talk to you! Protect and defend one another’s dignity through overarching respect and courtesy.
Offer love and assistance as you would receive it; give as though this woman is your grandma, this boy your little brother, this man your pa.
Do not judge–we know not why anyone is where they are, but we are all human! Maybe if we listen, we’ll learn somethin’ new.
Become educated–explore books, magazines, online resources, and the library to keep abreast of the news. Talk to locals and listen as individuals share their stories. Write for support to attend an educational conference. Sign up for email action alerts to prompt you and your communities to productive political engagement. Check public policy recommendations from homeless advocacy organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless and actively support housing justice, living wage jobs and local labor, civil rights and anti-criminalization of homelessness efforts, nutrition, transportation, child care, and job-training access programs.
Organize!–A clothing, food, toiletry, or bus pass drive and donate items to a local shelter–better yet, contact local shelters, food banks and other agencies serving homeless populations and ask how you can volunteer and get involved.
Get connected to or build a coalition–among students, among churches, schools and community groups, city blocks and neighborhood associations. Unite for the purposes of raising awareness, pooling resources and power, and the championing of rights for those who are frequently unseen and unheard.
Spread the word–Seek out and empower homeless and formerly homeless individuals to share their stories through news media, pictures, art, and community discussion panels. Organize creative awareness and fundraising events where people can learn about the issues, hear real stories, and engage in productive action: sleep outs, walk-runs, service events and memorial services such as National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day (on the first day of winter every year); such events can be great tools for motivating action and also for generating homeless outreach and uplift support against this great tragedy.
Write and call your congress and senate representatives urging legislative support on behalf of persons who are homeless. Organize an offering of letters before, during, or after church. Prompt a phone action day and ignite a chain of calls. Be even so bold as to set up a meeting to discuss issues surrounding homelessness, hunger and poverty with local and federal political figures; share this information with the public.
Volunteer! Offer a year of your life in service and advocacy on behalf of poor and homeless persons through organizations like Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Mercy Corps, Urban Promise, Urban Servant Corps, Mission Year, and more.
Daily, remember those who are hungry, poor, homeless, heat-less, education-less, father- and mother-less, ill, lost and lonely–spend time with these folks, volunteer, spend your spending and giving energies on the least of these, and pray for the peace, reconciliation, and healing of all God’s people.
For all who are lost and lonely crying out for hope and friendship, let us remember that it is You who first called us with love, kindness, and mercy out of darkness into Your marvelous light, and that our true earthly happiness is bound within a sister’s freedom, a brother’s security, and the knowledge of free salvation for all through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For homeless men, women, children, elderly and lame that suffer in the elements, let us remember and fight for their warmth and shelter as we have found true refuge and eternal rest in You. Merciful God, forgive our forgetfulness, our selfish blind-eyes which have led us to ignore Your children spending their lives on the streets, in shelters, in unbearable conditions; let us remember the suffering servant Jesus apparent within all humanity, remember ourselves–once wayfarers, sons and daughters of Israel wandering homeless forty years in the desert, and let us pray and work for Your kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, for we all yearn after the peace awaiting our final arrival with You in eternity. Open our ears to hear the cries of the needy, the lowly, the forgotten, for these Your sons and daughters, You have already exulted to the places of importance and good favor, and we are compelled to follow Your righteous example in response to the immense grace You have lavished on us and our vagrant hearts. Deliver us from selfish greed and irresponsible wealth; turn our hearts toward jubilee, redistribution, and the championing of the economic right to life of all God’s people. Abundant and limitless God, move us from our immediate and apparent comfort to seeking the unknown, the unseen and the uncomfortable; open our horizons to selfless action and daring love; subdue our narrow personal concerns and fashion our hearts with compassion and a righteous hunger for justice. Stir in us passion, faith, and courage to dispel all fear. Refresh us all who are tired in spirit and revive us each day anew!
Lord, You lead the way already; help us now to follow. Amen, Lord Jesus come!