There have always been homeless people standing by the highway ramps, begging for change from the stopped cars. But this year there have been many more of them. I see them in increasingly unlikely and unlucrative places, clearly forced there by desperation when all the other decent spots were taken. It was in such a spot that I saw a first for me, as I rode past on my bus to work: the cardboard sign read “Pregnant and homeless.”
The bus drove on before I had a chance to give the woman anything but a blessing, and one for the man who had moved more quickly than I and dropped a bill out of the window into the gutter. I hope they both fare well this winter.
Something about being pregnant and homeless at Christmas feels deeply, deeply wrong to me; some resonance with “no room at the inn.” So pause a moment, and think on what we do to the homeless in this society of ours.
One standard response to the homeless is, “Lazy bum, get a job!” These days, however, that ought to ring fairly hollow; the last homeless man I talked to had job applications in for a dozen openings, but even with 20 years’ experience he wasn’t getting far. Everyone’s hurting, everyone’s taking cuts in hours and pay: the simple fact is that laziness cannot explain the people on the streets this year. Maybe these tough times will help us as a people to realize that laziness was never the whole story, and that all our scornful instructions to clean up and work hard were misdirected.
The notion rings more hollow still when you meet the many homeless men and women who hold down jobs, often full-time ones, but still can’t pull together first and last month’s rent at once.
To take the “lazy bum” theory to the natural extreme, I once heard of a college professor who advocated spitting on homeless people “to make homelessness an unappealing choice.” In short, this professor felt that the people who were on the streets had elected to be there, and if they were simply motivated to not be on the streets, they wouldn’t be. I would say that a few might be intentional wanderers who could be persuaded to stop, but only one in a thousand; the rest are there because they have no other place to be. But that is what all our cries of “lazy!” amount to: spitting on the most afflicted.
We assail the homeless from every direction. In Seattle there is a law against sitting on the sidewalk, and innumerable public benches are designed to keep people from sleeping on them: bars or bumps block the middle and keep anyone from lying prone. To me they scream hostility. While I love my city, I wonder what might have happened to Mary in Seattle today, if she had sat down to take the weight off her aching feet. Arrested, perhaps, for the crime of being too tired to keep walking.
Being tired and poor, I may add, since you can sit down in Seattle and not get busted. I do not sit on the benches I mentioned; I sit on the ground beside them. But no one has ever told me to stand up and keep moving. I’m wearing “nice” clothes, I “don’t smell bad,” and frankly I’m the “right” color. None of these actually mean anything when it comes to being homeless, but they serve as a shield.
I could also add that while many street people are indeed addicted to drugs or alcohol, or are homeless for problems of their own making, others are there through no fault of their own. I’ve spoken with a homeless man who was clearly not in his right mind, speaking to me for a good two minutes in a language only he knew. Where’s the job for that man? Do laziness, drug abuse, or criminal behavior explain why he’s on the street? Even many of the substance abusers got there because they were told to “serve their country,” got put through the meat grinder of war, and then had no help to put their hearts and minds back together afterward. Even now the Pentagon flounders with PTSD; in prior generations the military brass didn’t even acknowledge the problem existed. In such a situation, is it really any wonder that men and women try to find some solace in the bottle or a needle?
Besides, there are the kids. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (1), four in ten of homeless youths are gay or lesbian, many of them driven out by their own parents for being gay; I’d wager many if not most of the rest are fleeing abuse. I had a student once who was expelled from his own home by his parents on his 18th birthday, kicked out into a snowstorm; fortunately he had a friend to turn to who could take him in, but not everyone is so lucky. Is it a crime for them to be sitting on the sidewalk? Is it laziness to flee rape, or beatings, or to have your front door barred to you because of who you are? Would we spit on a child whose only crime was being abandoned?
Mostly, however, we don’t spit on homeless people: we ignore them. And isn’t that the most telling of all? It’s like they have leprosy or were in some other way contagious. In a culture like this one, to have only a little wealth makes you less of a person while to have a lot makes you a star. No have no wealth at all makes you a different species, subhuman, not worth acknowledging with pleasantries or sympathies or even abuse.
Or is it embarassment? Some deep-seated acknowledgment that we are in fact no worthier than they, that we aren’t well-housed and well-clothed by our own competence, that we are no more deserving of our wealth than they, and thus we’ve acquired our wealth by simple luck?
No matter the causes of the homelessness we try not to see, and no matter our reaction to it, the cardboard-and-marker sign “Pregnant and Homeless” reminds me also of a different part of the same story with Mary and Joseph and the baby. Specifically I recall one of the things the baby grew up to say: “As you do for the least of these, you do also for me.” And I think on how that cuts both ways.
All the innkeepers who turned Mary away did unto Jesus; all the landlords who evict and all the parents who abuse and all the managers who lay off do the same thing. And yes, there’s money involved, but no matter how you slice it, money cannot be more important than Jesus, and Jesus told us that we must treat everyone as we would treat him.
The innkeeper who at last let Mary into the stable chose otherwise, and so must we. But I wonder if the innkeeper, knowing who was to be born, would not have taken Mary into his own home and begged for the child to be birthed in his own bed — and if he would have done that for Jesus, Jesus himself would tell him to do it for anyone at all.
(1) http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/article/detail/2141/, accessed 12/23/2009.