Friday, September 20, 2019

The Homelessness Problem

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 
     The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” 
     Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
     “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.” 
     Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.    
-Matthew 20:29-34 (NIV)

Like most every other city in the world, Chicago has a homelessness problem.
     I chose that word carefully: “homelessness.” Three syllables, not two. It’s easy to skip over that last syllable, just as easy as it is to believe that it’s people who are homeless that are the problem in Chicago and cities like it. People who are homeless, though, are first and foremost people. They’re people like me and you. The degree to which we find that hard to believe is the degree to which we’ll tend to think they are the problem. 
     We don’t, after all, have a cancer patient problem, or a heart disease or stroke victim problem. It’s the diseases with which they suffer that we want to cure. The faces of real people with those diseases remind us that the fight against them is real.
     When it comes to homelessness, though, we don’t want to see it. We have a homeless problem — two syllables. And if it’s a homeless problem, then we solve it by keeping the homeless where they can’t be seen or make anyone uncomfortable. 
     It was announced this week that the Environmental Protection Agency will cite the city of San Francisco for environmental violations because of the “tremendous pollution” — used needles and “other things” that supposedly make their way into the ocean through storm sewers  —  which the government says is caused by the homeless in the city. (The mayor of San Francisco points out that debris that gets into storm drains is filtered out at the city’s water treatment plants.) All this concern for “The homeless problem” despite the fact that funding for homeless shelters and mental health continues to be cut.
     The EPA notice is a political move, of course. It illustrates that “the homeless problem” is addressable at most levels of government only from a political perspective. Too often, though, the government’s perspective on “the homeless problem” is only an echo of the electorate’s perspective: “We have people living in our ... best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings and ... people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”
     So “the homeless problem” is a problem because it represents a loss of “prestige.” 
     But you can’t really fault the government for considering homelessness a prestige problem when the people who put them in office see it the same way.
    And the evidence suggests that’s exactly the way we see it. There are places in Chicago, as there are in most cities, where homeless people aren’t allowed to stay. You won’t see a lot of them along the Magnificent Mile, or around Wrigleyville on game day. You won’t see them in the winter enjoying the warmth in Water Tower Place, asking shoppers for change in the food courts. In the less prestigious neighborhoods, in the spots where there are fewer tourist attractions, you’ll see them and their camps under viaducts, in parks, in alleys. In the “nice” parts of the city, though, they’re kept as invisible and inconspicuous as possible. 
     Chicago people talk about homelessness in terms of prestige, too, even if we don’t recognize it as such. We worry about our property values if the visibility of the homeless increases in our neighborhoods. As though homelessness is primarily a problem because it decreases the value of a homeowner’s investment. 
     Not to mention our discomfort about the whole issue. People without homes find it hard to blend in, don’t they? Their hair and makeup games aren’t on point. Their beards tend to be kind of wild. Sometimes they don’t smell very fresh. Sometimes (though not as often as we remember) substance abuse and mental illness make them act strangely. They don’t fit well with the stories we like to tell ourselves and each other about success and affluence. They don’t have a place in the pictures of our cities and neighborhoods we like to show visitors.
     That’s what ought to make the homeless priority recipients of the church’s love, mercy, and compassion.
     I don’t know if those blind men by the side of the road in Jericho were homeless or not. They were certainly beggars. That suggests that they didn’t have much of support structure — no family to give them food and shelter and not many options for employment. Their situation has homelessness written all over it, and if so they’re in that situation for the same reason many of the homeless in your city are; they have a disability or disease that makes them unable to care for their families and themselves.
     They aren't the kind of folks the crowd around Jesus want to hear or, God forbid, see. So when the two call out for help from Jesus, the crowd tries to shut them up. The crowd rebukes them, tries to silence them. But they shout “all the louder.” 
     Don’t you like that? I do. But I don’t think we would if it happened in our neighborhoods. In our neighborhoods, we don’t want homeless people making much noise or being too visible. It makes the neighborhood look bad. Somehow it reflects on our prestige. 
     But Jesus turns that crowd’s self-interest on its head, doesn’t he? “What do you guys want me to do for you?” What you take away is that, in contrast to the crowd who wants them to be quiet and disappear, Jesus hears them and has compassion. 
     For the church, the “homeless problem” is a homelessness problem. The problem is not people who are homeless, so it isn’t a problem that goes away if we don’t see any homeless people. The problem is that there are people in our city, in our world, who have no place to stay tonight. They’re begging for money and food. Some of them are living in cars, or sleeping in parks or alleys or under bridges. Some have families who are worried about them. Some have children living with them. Some need medical or psychiatric care. Some need rehab. Some go to sleep each night praying for help and safety. Some have given up praying.
     This is a problem the church can begin to make a difference in because the church begins with compassion. We start with the love of Jesus. But the love of Jesus is an intentional act to do good. To help. To serve.
     We can’t let the crowd silence those who are homeless. We can’t let those who are mainly concerned with prestige, perception, and politics keep us from hearing their cries for help. We have to stop looking away. We know Jesus, after all. And he would like for homeless people in our city to know him.
     Let’s introduce them. Or remind them of his love. But not by lessons or sermons or Bible studies. By embodying his compassion. By refusing to let their voices be silenced. By seeing and hearing them, by asking them to tell us their stories, and by acting in love on their behalf. 

     That’s how we begin to make a real difference in the homelessness problem.

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