Home(less) for the Holidays

gifts

Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.

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