Monday, January 15, 2007

What to do with the homeless?

Anyone can tell you that the homeless population in America continues to grow. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty there are currently 3.5 million homeless people in America right now. That includes between 4,000 and 14,000 in Dallas. Twenty to 30 percent of the homeless in America have jobs yet can't scrape together enough to pay for a place to live. I've read that nearly 1/3 of the homeless have slight to severe mental issues. Another 1/3 have chemical dependencies of some sort. The remaining simply fall on hard times and can't catch a break long enough to get them off the streets. A missed paycheck, a health crisis, or an unpaid bill pushes poor families over the edge into homelessness.
So what is the answer to America's (and the world's) homeless population? Is there one? Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us. But does that mean homelessness and extreme poverty as well? Is there an answer to the problem?
I just finished reading "Under the Overpass: A journey of Faith on the Streets of America" by Mike Yankoski.
Yankoski and his friend Sam spent five months on the streets of Denver, Washington DC, Portland, San Fransisco, Phoenix and San Diego. They experienced being shunned by people everywhere, including people who were very open about their Christian faith -- even while sitting in churches.
An ongoing struggle to find safety, a place to sleep, a bathroom and food becomes dehumanizing for anyone. One experience at a time, a person's sense of dignity and sense of self-worth gets stripped away. I don't know what the experience would be like for someone who has lived on the streets for thirty years.
But I do know this: blithely allowing this terrible stripping to occur is a blot on the conscience of America and especially on the conscience of the church. If we as believers choose to forget that everyone -- even the shrunken soul lying in the doorway -- is made in the image of God, can we say that we know our Creator? If we respond to others based on their outward appearance, haven't we entirely missed the point of the Gospel? (emphasis added)
Reading the book and ministering to the folks at Austin Street inspired me. The book made me rethink how I've treated everyone I see standing alongside the road looking destitute and looking for a handout.
Every evening I drive to Laurie's there is someone standing at the corner of Ferguson and I-30 asking for help. I have to ask myself, am I doing right by giving this man or woman a handout? I feel guilty if I don't, yet at the time it's very easy to look away and pretend I'm busy on the phone or pretend I'm changing the radio station until the light changes green. Yet I don't really know that person's situation. I haven't taken the time to get out of my truck and share the love of Christ with them.
Even if I do toss a few coins or dollars their way is that really sharing Christ with them? Would a tract be more "Christian-like?"
I tend to believe that if a person asks for money, as a Christian I should be willing to help. After all Christ says, "To you who are ready for the truth, I say this: Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person. If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it. If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously."
If Christ says that about our enemies, how much better should we respond to our neighbors and the stranger on the street?
Christ also tells the rich young ruler, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
But then I have to consider, am I not also to be a good steward of my money?
I've felt guilty the last week or so because I have three or four piles of clothes sitting in my hallway that need to go to the Austin Street Shelter. Because of other "priorities" I have not been in three weeks.
There are clothes sitting there that can be used to keep someone warm that might not get into the shelter at night, or even as they're out and about during the day.
Tonight on my way home, as a winter storm finally began to make it's presence felt in Dallas, I decided to meet my dad at Fuel City, at the intersection of Industrial and I-35.
It's a nice bright convenience store with the best tacos in the state (according to Texas Monthly).
Dad had worked all evening looking for icy roads in Dallas to sand. I decided I'd meet him after his shift to share a few tacos and a few minutes of conversation.
I know the Fuel City area fairly well. Austin Street is less than two miles away. I stop their frequently and I'm never surprised when someone asks me for spare change so they can catch a bus, get some cough medicine, buy a taco or what not.
Tonight was no different.
As I sat in my truck I saw a man and a woman trying to keep warm near the entrance to the gas station.
I felt guilty watching them shiver as I sat in my truck running the heater.
I watched them as they asked other customers for change. The woman seemed to have somewhat sporadic behavior and I began to wonder which 1/3 of the homeless population she fit into.
An Hispanic lady stopped at the taco stand and purchased several tacos for herself and for the woman begging outside.
I watched as the woman took the taco(s) and then just sat them aside as she went asking for more money.
"She's looking for a fix" I thought to myself. Just hoping to get a drink or a drug fix later tonight.
Judging her I focused on the man. He was much more calm, less aggressive in asking.
Finally my dad called and said he should arrive in 10-15 minutes.
I got out of my truck and approached the window of the taco stand. The man spotted me right away. Like a tractor beam he approached and asked for money.
"Couldn't get into a shelter tonight?" I asked.
"No, the shelter costs $7," he replied.
"They charge you for a bed on a night like this?"
"Sure. Can I have some money?"
"How bout I buy you a taco or two instead?" I asked him.
"Yeah. Chicken - no onions," he told the lady at the window.
I pulled out my money and paid $5 for four tacos. I had $1 remaining and he eyed it right away.
I started to put the money back into my pocket and he asked me for it.
I told him I had a pocket full of change I could give him and I did.
He was grateful and then became somewhat frantic when several coins fell to the concrete sidewalk.
He gathered them up again and then asked for my last dollar.
"Come on. Give me the dollar so I can get into the shelter."
"You really think you'll be able to get a bed this late at night?" I asked. He didn't respond.
"You know if you go over to Austin Street they don't charge you for a bed." I was hoping I was right but knew at this late hour the shelter would be packed to the max.
"Come on just give me the dollar."
Something inside of me said, "Go ahead. Help him out."
So I did. Moments later the tacos were ready. I handed him his two tacos and told him he should go to Austin Street next time and to stay warm.
He shook my hand and said thanks.
I walked back to my truck and watched him.
He went back to the window and complained that he said "No onions."
I don't believe they fixed his order but he turned around and began eating them as he asked another customer for money.
He finished his tacos and threw the container away.
I hoped I had done the right thing by giving him my last bit of cash.
A few minutes later an announcement was made that the store would stop selling beer shortly. Five minutes till midnight, sounds right.
The woman then approached the man and they talked briefly before walking away from the store.
As I watched them they climbed into a car parked on the property and drove off several minutes later.
"Wow. I guess I've been had," I thought. "Oh well. Lord please let my gift be a blessing to them somehow."
Events like this have made so many in our country and our church skeptics of the homeless. They've turned what may have been at one time a very generous heart, into a cold, unthinkable, more than willing to pass you by attitude.
But what should we as Christians do?
Do we ignore the whole fruit basket because of one or two rotten apples? Or do we give generously and hope that it rubs off on someone?
I feel like I've had this discussion numerous times in the last six months. Whether it's homelessness, illegal immigration, Abu Gray, Guantánamo Bay or anywhere else, people have their defense mechanisms turned on.
Seth Woods writes, "We snicker at the lost and thank God that I'm saved."
We all have our reasons for not reaching out. I have plenty myself.
But I have to consider, who did Christ love? Who did Christ give forgiveness to when none was deserved? I know I'm one of those who have received His grace, His forgiveness and His mercy when none was deserved.
Christ came to save the world not condemn it. Christ came for the very sinner who may have lied about what he was going to do with my $1 bill. Christ came for the illegal immigrant hoping to make a better life for himself or his family. Christ came for the terrorist spending his time in prison. Christ came for Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush.
Christ came to love and share love and I believe he's called us to do the same.
I still don't have the answers as to how this plays out in our day-to-day life. I don't know how this gives an answer to the homeless issues our country faces. I don't even know what this means for prisoners in Guantánamo -- but I know that I as a follow of Christ are called to love them.
The last time we saw Henry was the day before we left San Fransisco for Phoenix as he was stumbling through the center of the park, talking frantically to himself, shaking his fists widely at the sky. All I could think about was the fact that Jesus spent time with people just like Henry. Jesus came to them, healed them, cast the demons out of them -- gave them life and peace.
But here's the thing: Jesus expects us to reach out to Henrys too -- and He draws the expectation in the clearest of terms. How we treat people in this life will determine whether we hear "whatever you did for one of the least of these... you did for me" (Matthew 25:40) or "whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" Matthew 25:45).
Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether Henry or the man who thinks he's Jesus are clinically diagnosed as mentally ill or spiritually described as demon possessed. Neither label gets us off the hook of what we are called to do and be in their lives.
We are called to love, regardless of what the other individual has done. Two final quotes tonight before I end tonight and wrap myself in my warm, cozy bed.
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. - Bono
I want to be like my Jesus -- but I'm not sure what that means. To be like You Jesus, cause You said to live like you and love like You -- and then You died for me. - Jeremy Camp

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