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A frigid response to the homeless. January 26, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, with a sometimes-graphic post about the plight of the homeless. I’ve been thinking a lot about them the past few months. First, because it was so unnaturally cold all November in our home state of scenic PA. Then, in December, a cartoon that runs in our local Sunday paper, “Jump Start” by Robb Armstrong, addressed the subject in a novel way.

Here’s how it went: The family who’re the “stars” of the strip were leaving church on a Sunday when there was a guest preacher when they see a homeless man huddled under newspapers outside. He speaks to them, and they realize he’s actually their regular preacher. When they ask what he’s doing, he says that he tried to attend his own church disguised as a homeless man and was thrown out. Nobody wanted to sit anywhere near him; he smelled. The family asked if he’d done anything like this before, and he responded in the affirmative, tellingly: “A variety of disguises. Unwelcome types. Stole the idea from God.”

Food for thought there. And then the arrival of the polar vortex, with its heavy snows and minus-zero temperatures, which seems to have lasted for a month and shows no signs of diminishing, put the plight of the homeless in the paper, given the very real risk of their freezing to death. Shelters were listed, with the days and hours they were open and whether they accepted men or women and children and whether they provided food, as though the homeless were buying and reading newspapers.

Then this past weekend, local columnist Bill White of The Morning Call ran a column that really frosted my flakes. He said the mayor of a nearby town had released a statement condemning a church for daring to house the homeless on piles of blankets in their basement (they also run a heavily attended soup kitchen) when the homeless should be going to facilities with actual beds. The statement also blamed the homeless for not getting themselves to the “approved” shelters.

It’s all too clear that the mayor in question lives in a comfy house with a functioning car, and can’t even begin to conceive of what it would be like to be without transportation. I’m acutely aware of this issue because Our Friend Ben and I live a good 20-30 minutes from anything resembling civilization, such as a grocery store. Our country setting is idyllic, but without a car, we’d be dead.

Now consider the plight of the homeless, with no transportation, no money to even take public transport, no concept of where the nearest shelter might be, when it might be open, whether it would reject them for being the wrong gender. How are they supposed to get to a shelter, even if they knew where it was? And some of the shelters are only open from late night to very early morning, when public transport wouldn’t be available.

Thinking about all this vividly brought to mind my most memorable encounter with a homeless person, maybe 15 or 20 years ago in New York City, where convenient public restrooms—or any public restrooms—had been done away with for fear of crime. I was visiting a friend in her apartment, and an elderly homeless woman had taken up residence in the entryway to the apartment building. When my friend and I went out to take in the sights, the woman, who smelled as bad as the comic strip had implied, roused herself, went out with us, squatted, and urinated on the sidewalk. A horrified passerby rushed up to her and shouted, “You can’t do that!!!” The poor woman very reasonably asked, “What am I supposed to do?”

What indeed. What would you do if you desperately needed to go to the bathroom and there was no bathroom to go to? What would you do if you were freezing to death and had no way to get yourself to a warm and welcoming place? Bill White’s column noted that to get into shelters at all, many homeless people had to provide identification and proof that they were homeless and unemployed. Yet most homeless people have no identification or papers of any kind.

And now, shelters that don’t require such police-verified IDs, like the church in the article, are being blasted by officials like the mayor. Instead, he should be so ashamed of himself for his CYA attitude—Hey, if a homeless person dies from cold exposure, it’s his own fault, not ours! He’s only homeless because he’s a worthless bum to begin with!—and be donating funds to churches like this to keep their shelters and soup kitchens running.

Those of us who have roofs over our heads should pity these people, not condemn them. Yes, we might feel that tremor of fear of “the other” if we encounter them on the street, begging, or the fear of what life could hold for us if we see one pushing an obviously stolen grocery cart containing all her posessions or huddling under cardboard and newspapers over a heating grate like the pastor in the cartoon. But this is a matter of life and death with the desperate cold upon us. If ever there was a time to ask “What would Jesus do?” this is it.

‘Til next time,




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