homelessness

Infinity

For a couple of weeks I've been trying to get the bat of my shoulder to comment about the Right to Survive Ballot Initiative being put up for a vote here in Denver. I haven't had the guts to swing, I guess because the terms of discourse are so narrow as to be utterly useless to anyone trying to make sense of the issue.

Together Denver, the campaign organization backed by real estate developers and the downtown business district, has framed the issue like this: they argue it's cruel to pass a law which allows people to live on the street but offers no way out of homelessness. In all of Together Denver's campaign literature, in their TV ads, in their mailers, in their online material, they claim to have the best interests of "the homeless" in mind. Vote no, they say, for the true moral stance is not to make it more comfortable to live on the streets. No, the true moral stance is to craft policy that helps people get off the street.

This false piety is so smart it makes me sick.

For someone who supports the Right to Survive, the reasoned response within this framing is to point out that making life on the streets more humane, on one hand, and offering resources that help people get off the streets, on the other, are not mutually exclusive.

But I'm tired of the reasonable response.

The unreasonable response is this: there are people living on the streets right now who will never get off the street. There are people living on the streets right now who will die on the street. There are people who are not yet living on the streets who will die on the street.

Here's the thing. Right now, there are people living on the streets for whom LIVING IN PUBLIC IS THE BEST POSSIBLE OPTION. It isn't the wrong option. It isn't a bad choice. It isn't a choice that shouldn't be possible. It's the best. possible. option. for the day-to-day survival and overall spiritual health of many individuals who live on the street.

Homelessness is such a fraught issue for our country because it is an axe that smashes the frozen sea covering so many of our cultural sins.

The fact of homelessness in our society implicates many things: it implicates our economy, our healthcare system, our ideas about what's possible in government, our education system, our understanding of public and private space, our churches and other religious bodies, and our existential wellbeing (or lack thereof).

That homelessness itself is so dangerous to the people caught up in it and that it is so controversial to those who view it from the outside reveals our lack of imagination about the way a human life ought to be lived.

We may be able to develop the capacity to really reckon with ourselves as a society. But not by voting 'no' on the Right to Survive Ballot Initiative.

A 'yes' vote on the initiative is a vote for possibility: the possibility that someone living on the street right now might live another day, the possibility that someone may feel encouraged to seek out resources available to her to get off the street, the possibility that as a society we might really see what it takes to survive on the street and to investigate why someone might need to make that choice in the first place.

But more than all that, a 'yes' vote on the Right to Survive Ballot Initiative is a choice for the possibility of surprise. A 'no' vote doubles down on the poverty of the unexamined present. If we only had the courage to look, we would find that the present is pregnant with future possibilities, but a 'no' vote forecloses on the possibility of the future available to us at every moment.

To vote 'yes' is to vote not only for the defeat of Together Denver. To vote 'yes' is to choose that there might be more choices available, not only to our homeless friends but to all of us, unfolding into infinity.

When Someone is Covered in Shit

While sitting outside talking to Anne, I see Cindy look at me from across the porch and know she's going to come over and ask for something. Her floral dress hangs down to the ground with a brownish smear, a stain, and she quickly gathers the fabric forward to hide it.

"Do you have any extra pants?"

There are no extra pants but I tell her I'll go and look. I do this sometimes when I don't want the first thing I say to someone to be, "No."

"What size are you honey?" Anne interrupts.

Cindy tells Anne her size and Anne goes into her bag and pulls out rumpled pair of pants, saying, "These are too big for me." She also pulls out a t-shirt and hands it over to Cindy.

Cindy thanks Anne and shuffles toward the door. It's obvious she's also made a mess of the back of her dress and her shoes and her socks. Inside, the bathroom is blessedly in a rare unoccupied state.

By the time Cindy retrieves what she needs out of her pack, the bathroom is occupied again. Cindy looks through the little tub of donated hotel soaps and shampoos we set out for showers. One night someone walked in off the street, picked a thick bar of soap out of the tub and took a bite out of it like it was a cookie.

I can smell Cindy now. I ask Cindy if she's going to be able to clean herself up. I tell her she's number twelve on the shower list and we usually only get through ten showers on a shift. I don't stop to listen to her. The words are tumbling out of me.

I say, "I want you to be able to take a shower now. Is that okay with you?"

She says yes. I simultaneously feel like a Very Good Person and want to get her into the shower room and be finished with her.

She chokes a little and starts crying as I turn away. "I'm so embarrassed. I'm sorry to be a bother and make a mess. I'm so embarrassed."

I'm finally listening to her now. I see her, for the first time, as a child. I encounter her now as a person, not a problem.

Cindy emerges from the shower room after her allotted time and takes a seat at a table. The next person on the list calls me over and says, "Uh, can you guys clean that up?"

Poop is smeared on the floor, on the radiator, on the toilet.

As the mop bucket fills, Shani, a regular volunteer, pops her head in and asks if wiping up the mess with paper towels first might be best. That's what I was thinking too.

"Okay, hand me some gloves and I'll get started," she says.

The mop bucket is full now and Shani is crouched down wiping up poop and putting dirty paper towels in a bag. This is a radical act of love for Network, for Cindy, and ultimately for Christ, which Shani undertakes like it's nothing.

Our humanity lives closer to meekness than to strength. Vulnerability and mercy make us transparent to ourselves and present to our neighbor, while security and confidence conceal. We are children, all of us, reaching out and up, only asking to be embraced by love.

We Would Like to Work with the Poor

To: loganrobertson@poors.org
From: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
Subject: Volunteering
Date: May 24, 2018 2:14pm

Dear Logan,

I’m part of a local church group that is looking to do some volunteering. We’ve heard Poors Incorporated is doing great work in the city and we’re excited to connect. Our group would like to work directly with poor people, and we understand that you serve them. Since all of us work regular jobs we are looking to volunteer at your organization every other second Saturday starting in four and a half months. We’re planning ahead because we have a trip to help poor people in Honduras at the end of next month and the beginning of the next and the month after that we’re doing something in LA! :-)

We’re excited to work with your poor people. Looking forward to hearing back.

Sincerely,
Chryle Lorbers

To: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
From: loganrobertson@poors.org
Subject: Re: Volunteering
Date: May 24, 2018 2:38pm

Chryle,

I’m glad your group is looking to get involved in our city. You’re in luck, our organization has a whole group of poors here ready for you to help them. Before we schedule your group I’d like to get a little bit more information. What would you like to work on with our poor people? Do you have a sense for how long your group would like to be involved with the poor people at Poors Incorporated? How many people are in your group?

All the best,
Logan

To: loganrobertson@poors.org
From: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
Subject: Re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 25, 2018 9:17am

Hi Logan,

I guess I’m not really sure that we have something specific in mind to work on with the poor people at Poors Incorporated. We were thinking if there’s a program or something already in place where most of the work is already done, maybe you could plug us into that or whatever. We’re up for anything but we’d like to have direct contact with poor people. In the past, some organizations have had us come do filing, and we’re not really into that so much. There are 24 people in our group. We’re hoping all of us can volunteer together at the same time every other second Saturday of each month as I said below.

Can’t wait to get started five months from now.

Peace,
Chryle

To: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
From: loganrobertson@poors.org
Subject: Re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 25, 2018 10:43am

Chryle,

Thanks for the info. Unfortunately all of the volunteer positions where you can walk in the front door and work on a predetermined task for 2 hours before going out for lunch with your group are filled up! I was excited when you said you wanted to work with poor people, because I thought maybe you wanted to work with them on, like, coding CSS, HTML, and JavaScript or fixing cars or something like that. But never fear! we do have an intake process. Let me explain it before we go further.

Before you come on as a regular volunteer, we require that you spend 4 hours once a week, every week for a full calendar year at Poors Incorporated. During that time you should get to know the names of at least five poor people. Also, in that period of time the following events must occur for you to be considered as a regular volunteer: the police must be called once, an ambulance must be called at least twice, a fight must break out between two or more poor people during your shift involving a weapon of some kind—bonus points for a knife or steel pipe. Cleaning up blood, vomit, or other bodily fluids may be substituted for any one of these events. If you haven’t burned out before a year is up we’d be happy to take you on as a regular volunteer.

We can accommodate two people from your group.

Cheers,
Logan

To: loganrobertson@poors.org
From: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
Subject: Re: re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 27, 2018 9:22pm

It sounds like maybe Poors Incorporated won’t be such a good fit for our group.

To: beagoodperson77@jcisafriendtome.net
From: loganrobertson@poors.org
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 28, 2018 1:06am

No kidding.

The Absent Church

Last week at Network Coffeehouse I spoke to a man who had been released from DOC (Department of Corrections—aka prison) the week before. He was released with all his earthly possessions in a backpack, a list of services around Denver, and a voucher for clothes. After he was released, he hooked up with a woman who quickly disappeared with everything he owned.

My impression was that he knew no one, had no real connections in Denver, and wasn't sure what he would do next except check in with his parole officer.

Two things occurred to me while speaking to him.

First, the irony of his experience. For many people living in homelessness, the major factor contributing to their condition is an inability to connect and attach to other people. Ironic, then, that this man had trusted someone who immediately contributed to making his condition worse.

Second, except for his short time at Network the night we spoke, the Church was absent from his life. He didn't indicate how long he spent under the tutelage of the state and I didn't ask. But I wonder, if he had had a relationship with a church while he was behind bars, would he have found himself in the predicament he did a week ago? Perhaps he still would have found himself on the street. But with a community to turn to, maybe a lost backpack would not have been such a concern.

To visit the prisoner, the stranger, and the poor is called righteousness by Jesus. According to the author of Matthew, to fail to visit these is to invite eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the church is largely absent from the people and places Jesus calls it to be.

Of course, some efforts to visit the poor do exist. Network Coffeehouse is one. United Methodist Committee on Relief works worldwide to ease the suffering of people experiencing disaster. Denver itself is host to several efforts by churches to feed the hungry and clothe those in need. But these groups serve to highlight the absence of individual Christians and organized ecclesial bodies in the public sphere, witnessing, encountering, and bearing up under suffering.

Where the Church is clearly called by Jesus Christ to be, there instead exists a sucking vacuum. Into this conspicuous absence the most vulnerable people in our society are pulled. There, they are preyed on by demonic forces: drug dealers and cartels pushing meth, crack, and heroine, sex traffickers enslaving adults and children alike, pay day loan organizations and their capricious usury, day labor centers doling out work without appropriate wages, jails that increasingly charge fees for the most basic amenities. And then there's my friend at Network who simply needs a pair of pants. Standing against this force we have burned-out case managers, parole officers, a few people compelled by religion to serve their neighbor, and the odd person here or there who cannot help but find themselves among the poor and suffering. It is not enough.

The bulk of the Church, the living body of Christ, Jesus' hands and feet supposedly animated by the Spirit of God? A barely audible whisper at best. Unaccounted for, unseen, and unheard. Absent.