19 June 2015

The problem with the homeless

Several times in the last few weeks, I've felt like people around me have seen the homeless as a problem, and preferably a problem that can be fixed or gotten rid of. It disturbs me, and I'm not entirely sure how to respond.

When I told someone about the incident with Tarra, she mentioned that some people might respond by commenting on how I should move to a better neighbourhood. In other words, I should do my best to get away from the homeless or battered folks.

At my neighbourhood's last meeting we talked about the homeless. The neighbourhood (Eastside Lansing) is close to downtown Lansing and has a number of spaces like underpasses, parks, and trails where homeless folk tend to gather. We also have a hospital and a number of homeless shelters in our neighbourhood or on the border of it. There's also a couple of busier intersections where folks ask for money. It's thus hard to live in the neighbourhood and not notice that there are homeless folks here in Lansing. That's something to be thankful for – they are our neighbours, and we should see them. The challenge, however, is how one responds to the homeless.

When a bunch of homeless folks take over your shanty in the backyard and use it as a makeshift toilet, this is obviously disgusting and a problem. When people shoot up heroin in public bathrooms and leave dirty needles, this is unsafe and a problem. When people are running into the street to ask for money, this is dangerous and a problem. Perhaps giving to those at the corner would help, except those asking for money at a corner are not necessarily even homeless but instead might be begging for cash because it's easier and makes more money than a low-income job. One can see how it's easy to see how it's the homeless themselves who become the problem, a problem that needs to be gotten rid of. But I wonder if instead of the homeless being the problem, the problem is really how we treat them and the systems we have set up. Are there not things to do to make life better for those currently on the street and those with whom they interact?

I've been volunteering at a homeless shelter about once a month for awhile now. I'm not sure if it's part of the solution, but it's part of my trying to see and know the homeless for who they are. I'm not sure about the theological idea that God has a preference for the poor, but I do believe I have something to learn from these folks who understand what it's like to be truly needy. As I hand out food to the men at the shelter – food which they don't get to choose the quality of or even the quantity of – they are polite, gracious and thankful. On top of that, there are always guys who are willing to help out when we run short of volunteers – glad to help out whenever. Knowing my own selfishness and my annoyance for people who don't show up or do what they promised, I am challenged by their example.

It seems natural to me to try to converse with these men, trying to appreciate them for who they are, encourage them if I can, as well as to be encouraged and further challenged by them. You can imagine my surprise (and frustration) when the last time I was volunteering one of the homeless men helping out was reprimanded by the staff for talking to me, being told he's not to converse with the (real) volunteers. The reasoning was to discourage the men from getting the wrong idea about how a female volunteer might be interested in them or wanting some kind of relationship. Despite this being a Christian homeless shelter, it seemed like the homeless guy was pretty much blatantly told he was the problem. How do I fight against that? How do I tell them not to blame the guys at the shelter when such a situation, in my eyes, is more the fault of not training naive volunteers or on account of a neglecting to create and enforce healthy boundaries by both the volunteer and the staff all those noticing the conversations? And how do I say that I find it disturbingly unchristian to treat the homeless like a problem that needs fixing, whether by having them be kept in their place or having them be forced (before receiving dinner) to hear a sermon that often focuses on how they need to accept Jesus into their heart? As I jokingly told Matthijs, the homeless could probably use a lot less Jesus in their hearts and a lot more Jesus on the streets. And in this case, I'm not sure it's the homeless that need Jesus the most. Matthew 25 suggests that it is through helping the homeless that people help Jesus. I wonder how it'd change the conversation if we saw the homeless less as problems and more as Jesus.

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