Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Blaming the Poor for Poverty

This is an article I wrote for Leader Magazine, an MCUSA publication:

As we are driving down the road, we approach Tom. He is on the street corner, holding a sign, which says “Homeless. Anything helps.” He looks dirty and disheveled. His face is sad and tired. Just as pity rises in our hearts we think, “But what made him homeless? What keeps him homeless?” And the first thought we come up with is addiction.

Now we see Tom in a different light. We look for indications of alcoholism or drug use, as if we could see into his soul and see a black patch of wickedness. Somehow, we shake off this idea. We remember that we don’t have the right to judge another human being. So we take a bold move. We decide to park and talk to Tom.

“Do I drink?” Tom chuckles at the question. “Well, sure. I drink a 40 ouncer every night so I can get to sleep. Overnight, when it’s so cold that it creeps into your bones you need something. Some nights, I just sit up wondering who is going to approach me. The police might come with their dogs. I’ve had friends attacked by strangers in the middle of the night. I realize that it isn’t likely for these things to happen, but I don’t want to be kept awake by my thoughts. So I drink a beer every night. I can’t afford sleeping pills.” He laughs. “Heck, if I could afford that, I’d probably spend the money on a motel room!”

“Yep,” Tom admits, “some of my other friends drink a lot. And some of them use drugs. But I haven’t met too many folks who came to the street addicted. I can’t blame the ones who turn to it. It’s a hard life. And we spend a lot of our time just on surviving. I suppose they do that stuff so they can forget who they are and where they are. To take some joy in their lives. I don’t like to have my head in a daze, but I can see why they do it.”

In our society, poverty is blameworthy. Rarely is the attitude stated so plainly as by Bill Cunningham, “People are poor in America ... not because they lack money; they're poor because they lack values, morals and ethics.” We certainly don’t agree with Mr. Cunningham. But we know there must be some reason for poverty. And our society all too often blames the poor for their poverty. Thus is the connection between homelessness and addiction born.

The statistics on homelessness and addictions are difficult to pin down, just as most statistics about homelessness. Some say that only thirty percent of the homeless are addicted, others say as many as sixty five percent are (National Coalition for the Homeless). However, the number is far less than a hundred percent. And it is clear that rarely is addiction the cause of homelessness. It is estimated that at least half of the general population of the United States have some kind of addiction issue, so the homeless statistics are probably more than the general population, but not remarkably different.

To paraphrase James 2:2-4, if we look down upon the homeless, assuming their immorality, but we welcome the housed and middle class with open arms, have we not made false distinctions and become judges with impure motives? Our task is to welcome all like Jesus. Our task is to love our neighbor, providing what help we can.

This does not mean we should act foolishly. When I pass someone like Tom, I keep in mind that my pity wants to give him money, but perhaps money isn’t always the best thing to give him. I’d have to know him better to know for certain. But this doesn’t mean I can’t love when I see my neighbor or fellow Jesus follower holding a sign. I carry breakfast bars or pairs of socks in my vehicle so I can give him something he could use now.

There is always a way to help if we set aside thoughts of blame. “Blessed is he who makes plans for the poor…” Psalm 41:1

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