On the Street at Christmastime

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.

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2 thoughts on “On the Street at Christmastime

  1. Thanks for this post.
    I don’t believe I ever thought the homeless were lazy, but that’s because we spent a good 6 months homeless when I was in high school. My mom had a job the whole time, and a car, we just couldn’t find a place to live after we were kicked out of our house.
    I know a huge percentage of homeless people are women and children. And many people don’t want to be homeless; but it’s true there are some that choose it (I know one man who does).
    Society has taught us that most homeless people will take any money they get and buy drugs or alcohol. It’s hard to get past that sometimes.
    I remember hearing something about that once, which I’ll try to remember: For those of us who have money and resources there generally isn’t someone standing over us with expectations about how we’ll spend that money. It is a “gift” to us to use as we please. If we give money to the homeless, it’s up to them how they use it. Why do we put expectations on how they use it? We can be awfully judgmental about what the homeless use money for. But I’m sure if we look closely at our own purchases there is much that could be judged as well.

  2. You’re right, Aimee, there is so much judgment about how poor people use money. The food-stamp restrictions are one obvious “institutional” illustration. There are countless individual judgments as well. We can do something about the personal judgments (the official ones need work too, which is a longer and harder road).

    A few weeks ago a fairly ragged-looking man on the street asked me for money; I told him I was about to go buy my lunch and offered to get a meal for him, too. He said “thank you ma’am, but what I really need right now are some cigarettes.” Despite all my fine liberal credentials, my immediate (unspoken but loud) reaction was “you shouldn’t be spending money on cigarettes.” That day, by some gift of grace, I was able to work past my own reaction. OK (speaking firmly to myself!), I don’t smoke so I don’t know what he’s feeling, and anyway he’s the one who knows what resources he has or doesn’t have, and what he needs or doesn’t need. So I told him “fair enough, but I don’t have any change right now, do you want to walk down to [fast-food row] with me?” We walked together for a couple of blocks and had quite an interesting conversation, as it turned out. I bought my own lunch and gave him the change, shook hands, and said “I’ve enjoyed talking with you!” which was true — and, I think now, probably a better gift than the couple of dollars for smokes or whatever. That one time, at least, I was able to get past my immediate judgment and generalizations (all those nameless adjectives! the poor, the underprivileged, the homeless…), give the gift without all my unspoken “shouldn’ts” and “shoulds” and share a conversation with someone, as one real person talking to another real person. What a concept.

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