Monday, January 3, 2011

Questions Without Answers

Today I was closing up the overnight shelter and we had a discussion about whether the shelter will be open tonight. "It depends on whether we get volunteers or not." A., a 16 year old homeless girl, exclaims, "I'll volunteer!" And R., a newly homeless woman asks, "How do you get to be a church volunteer anyway?"

I try to explain the difference between a volunteer from a middle class church and a street volunteer, and how that works, and it all sounds pretty weak. Socially, what is the difference between us anyway? There are good reasons to have both a street volunteer and a middle class volunteer running each shelter, which I will explain in another post, but its easier to explain that to the middle class than to those on the street. Because, in the end, I'm saying that those on the street aren't good enough to take care of themselves. Mind you, if I don't have a middle class volunteer, the night is more likely to have problems, but the intellectual rationale sounds pretty awful.

In the end, why do any of us get something better than another? Why am I in the place I am?

Why is it that after the night shelter, I drop of a half dozen folks to sit in the bitter wind for an hour and a half, waiting for the soup kitchen to open, while I drive back, in my heated van, to the warm church I just drove them away from, check things on my computer and take a hot shower. Mind you, I really needed that shower because I haven't had one for almost two weeks, but that's not the point.

The point is that last night after opening up the shelter, I hadn't eaten dinner and so I could go to a local place and eat a grilled chicken burrito, while they were making brownies from a mix that was so old it was flat.

The point is that I get to sleep in my bed every night under the covers, but those on the street wait for me to make the decision whether the overnight shelter will even be open at all. Who am I to have the power of life and death? Am I so arrogant to think I deserve this, that I am better than anyone on the street? No. I am not.

So it is God who put me in this place, while many worthy people on the street have to sleep in the cold? I'm not saying that there aren't unworthy folks on the street, but there are certainly worthy ones, just as there are people warm in houses who deserve to be on the street. Is this God's justice? Is this humanity's decision? It is simply the way things are?

Damn. I am not satisfied with this. Not at all.

Why is it that I spend money on myself, my own desires, when I could be getting them hand warmers to keep them warm for a day? Why is it that I am helping to run the church, but they don't really get a full say in the operation of it. If they did, they would have it open to them every night all winter. At least. And who am I to say that it can't happen that way?

We who help the homeless or the needy in any part of the world are just so arrogant, unless we set aside our middle classness and become one with them. I can say, "If I were on the street, I couldn't get them a place to sleep when the nights are worst". True. But why aren't I getting them a place to sleep every night? Why, when the winds are frigid and no one could bear to have it against their skin for even a few minutes that I can choose not to have them be out of it. And sometimes I make that choice because I "have" to. I'm not really any better than anyone else who withholds goods from the needy.

I can keep saying, "Next year it will be better." Really? We've made a lot of progress, but we should have made more. Why must we insist that homeless people be homeless? And we do insist, as a society.

Churches-- which often remain empty five days a week-- don't let them in. I suppose because keeping their carpets clean and the heating bill down is more important than Jesus' command to help the homeless.

They are kicked out of abandoned houses that no one is using.

Businesses don't want them sleeping in their doorways, what little protection that offers, as if they are going to lose customers in the middle of the night. "Oh, I see this store lets the homeless sleep in the doorway when they aren't open. I won't shop there again."

The police move the homeless on from public property, or even private property where they are allowed to stay. And then they'll tear up their camps or bedding, just to let them know they aren't welcome.

There are places for the homeless to be, but we have made a decision, as a society, to not allow them to be housed.

And I, and everyone who helps the homeless are complicit in that. Yes, we have our programs, our ways of helping. But if we get a salary for it and we don't use our salary for the homeless we are frankly a hypocrite, a paid flunky for whoever pays us to ease their collective conscience. Every one of us who focuses on our own desires instead of meeting the greater needs are a part of the problem.

Yes, I know there are answers to this morally, but I choose to wallow in this guilt a little bit. And I would recommend that to everyone to made it to the bottom of this post. Wallow in that guilt. Maybe it will encourage just one of us to buy some hand warmers or socks instead of going out to dinner once. Maybe it will encourage just one of us to keep a homeless person with us for a night, and realize that it wasn't so hard. Maybe it will help us realize that programs aren't the answer-- we are. Maybe one more church will open up their doors to the homeless.

Or maybe I'll get just one more person to stay with my folks overnight, so they can have one more night in a warm place.