Sackcloth and Ashes: Some thoughts on homelessness

September 18th, 2017

I went to a meeting today where roughly $22 million of HUD money was up for grabs. The applications for the $22 million are based on good, data-driven, research-backed approaches to reducing homelessness.

On the merits, I believe in continuum of care, housing first, coordinated entry, rapid rehousing, shelter diversion, etc. I can look at the data and know these methods work.

But I'm also a shift director at Network Coffeehouse. Network is a ministry of dignity, respect and long-term relationship where people experiencing homelessness can get a cup of coffee, a little rest, and see a friendly face before heading off to camp for the night. One of our guys at Network died early in the morning of Monday, September 11.

Bill had been without housing for years. He was what I think of as a professional alcoholic: rarely seems drunk but is always swimming in booze. But even given his addiction, he and his friends took pretty good care of themselves. Clean, well-dressed, easy to like guys.

Bill was housed through some agency or another a couple of months ago. He started showing up at Network dirty, obviously drunk, and out of sorts. Now he’s dead. On the night he died, Bill chose not to go sleep in his apartment but to camp with his friend Darrel as he had done for years.

I know there are data-backed answers for the kinds of best practices that should be employed for cases like Bill’s. I’m not delusional. I don’t think Bill would be alive if he had never been housed. Maybe he’d be alive if he were housed much sooner.

But in our concern about the most effective way to allocate $22 million, we can’t help but reduce the humanity of marginalized people. It is imperative for people engaged in poverty and justice work to continually be reminded of what Network's director, Ryan Taylor, calls “the beggar within.”

If we don’t strive to become transparent to ourselves, to confront our needs and motivations, then we’ll draw distinctions between “me” and “my neighbor.”

We call poor people marginalized, but a privileged life is really a life lived on the margins of reality. The true power of privilege is to ignore, avoid, or mitigate suffering—or to have the power to pass suffering on to others. I wonder if Bill had a caseworker whose capacity for compassion (‘suffering with’) was informed by the humility of their inner beggar.

If we do not confront our weaknesses—our basic human unity—in this work as volunteers or professionals, we will fall prey to cultural idols that minimize the humanity of the people we serve. These idols include power, as always, but also the allure of efficiency and quantitative success, values that seem to carry more meaning than simple compassion and empathy, but which are ultimately capitalist values that place more emphasis on outcomes than relationship and process. For his part, Jesus rejects power, efficiency, and success on the cross in favor of powerlessness, friendship, solidarity, repentance and sacrifice.

Homelessness doesn't belong to some other unhoused person, or to a caseworker, or to the government, but to all of us. Without total personal and societal reorientation away from our cultural idols, no model of homelessness reduction will truly address the issue.

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