Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Homelessness is not the only issue here.

Back in Texas, through a friend, we met a woman who ran a shelter for men right out of prison. She had a tough love approach. Her motto was “Give a man a fish and feed him for one day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Not that she didn’t give the men food, but she was heaven bent on making certain they left her with a knowledge of how to get on in the world without drinking, doing drugs, or committing crimes. I have no idea what the recidivism rate was at her shelter.

I understand the idea that charity can be toxic. I suppose she was the first one that I heard with that idea. But what I have come to learn is that charity is toxic when the charity is all about the giver and little about the receiver. Too many people do works of charity for the glory they perceive they will gather.

Then there are those who seem to think that if people weren’t lazy or drunk or drugged out, they would be able to make it in this old world. It’s that ‘pull yoreself up by yore bootstraps’ ideology. Do it yourself.

Chief Sam Dotson of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department appears to be a man of the latter ilk.

From an interview with CBS St. Louis, June 16, 2016, Chief Dotson is quoted:
“The whole idea is to help that population transition back into housing, transition back into jobs,” Dotson says. “And if we make it too easy – give them food, give them clothes, allow them to live on the street – they never go to those service providers.”

“…if we make it too easy”… Hell, son, this ain’t Texas. You don’t have to be so tuff.

This interview came in response to the police, under orders, ticketing people who come to the downtown area to offer food and clothing to people who live in shelters or on the streets. SLMPD has joined the ranks of hundreds of other police departments across the nation who are trying to save their city from the hordes of homeless people and those who see them as “the least of these”.

There are many groups that, all in the name of Jesus, trying to live out the Gospel, come into the downtown area to help people. Chief Dotson seems to think that this is wrong…that these meals and the hand-me-down clothes will encourage the people to forget about living in a place with walls, roof, utilities, and amenities such as indoor plumbing.

I would say that Chief Dotson has no idea what causes homelessness, how difficult life is on the streets, or even what hunger is like. Nor does he seem to know that many homeless people actually have jobs; they simply do not have the cash resources or credit to get into housing.

I think that it is safe to say that if one does not suffer from depression prior to becoming homeless, a brief stay in the open without shelter for the day and into the night could bring on a serious bout of depression. And paranoia. What must it be like to be newly homeless and deal with no shelter, no food, no idea where to go for help? How many times is that anxiety compounded if that person is a woman or a woman with children?

I know what it is like to greet people as they come in out of the heat or cold into a comfortable temperature with a hot meal awaiting them. I see their faces. I shake their hands and always, there are those who want a hug. For a few moments in time, they can relax.

Can we imagine what it is to wear the same clothes for days at a time? Can we feel the chaff begin from wearing the same pair of underwear or the blisters from the same pair (or no pair) of socks? I don’t even want to think about how I would feel if I were unable to take a shower or wash my face each night.

Does anyone know how many steps a homeless person takes each day or how quickly he can wear out a pair of shoes? Consider the fact that most of the shoes worn by people on the street are used to begin with, already set to fit someone else’s foot shape, the wear and tear is accelerated. Think about wearing shoes that are just off a bit, not quite the right size. Foot issues are one of the biggest health problems for people who are homeless.

Does anyone know how long a pair of jeans or a t-shirt will last if these are worn every day all day long?

I have to make myself drink water. It’s silly and certainly a first world problem when I consider that for a homeless person, drinking water can be hard to come by. It may be relatively simple to find a faucet or a fountain, but to have water to carry around to drink when the desire or the need arises can be a challenge. The challenge holds for toilets. Where does one go when one must go?

If I offer food to a person, it gives her the strength to get to the next stop along the way.

If I give a person a new pair of socks or shoes, it offers him a bit of relief so that he can walk for a little longer.

If I have clean clothes, it offers a few moments of dignity. A shower gives hope.

If I offer bottles of water, not only have I given water, but I have also provided a light weight container that can be refilled.

I would like to know of the providers that Dotson mentions – who are these that offer showers? Or clothing? Or socks and shoes? Or housing, for that matter? I know two places that offer showers. One is in the north part of the city; one is about one mile from downtown.

I know that there are several really special programs in the City of St. Louis that offer lifesaving services to many people. Yet, even if one is able to get through the maze that all must go through, housing is not readily available. Of the number of times I have called trying to find help for a woman who needs help, either I can’t get through to a real person or I have been told that there is a waiting list because the shelter is full. If a woman has gathered up the courage to leave an abusive situation and is seeking help, there should be immediate help available. Abusive situations do not respect waiting lists.

Chief Dotson suggested that the Biddle House would soon take the place of the Bridge – a group that has offered many services for several years to those who are homeless. It closes officially at the end of June. Many services have already been terminated. The Biddle House is not scheduled to open until the end of July…and I read that there are issues with it. The North City area is claiming NIMBY and I can’t say that I blame them. They have worked hard and long to reclaim an impoverished neighborhood and suddenly to have people who are aimlessly standing around with nothing but time on their hands and a hunger in their hearts is a message that the neighborhood has been working to erase. Hopefully, those problems will be worked out. Regarding the renovations that must happen prior to residents moving in, last I heard, these have not even begun.

The people who offer food and clothing to those in need are following what they believe they have been told to do: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And the answer? When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:37-40)

We have been commanded to love one another, just as Jesus loves us. (John 15:12) When we love one another, we help one another. It is all we can do.

We are reaching a moment of decision in this city. The people who are homeless have not always been so. They are people who made a wrong turn, had one of those life-changing moments, or simply are not well. Not one of them is too very different from any one of the people complaining about “the homeless”. The lack of compassion is the frightening thing. The idea that people could treat those who need help as though they are a throw away part of society is simply sad.  

The idea that someone could believe that people would rather live on the streets, receive food and clothes from strangers than to be able to “transition” into housing and employment is small minded. If it is “too easy” to get food and clothing on the street, the people who have to carry everything they own everywhere they go; the people who must go days without showers; the people who go 24 hours between meals; the people who have to walk miles if they want more than one meal a day; the people who sleep during the day so that they won’t get attacked at night, those people will “never go to those service providers”.

How sad it is that people can justify their actions by convoluted thinking such as this.

Homelessness is not the only issue here.

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