For the most of 15 years we have had a ministry to the homeless on a corridor in suburban Gresham. We provide some food, showers, and a place for the homeless to get out of neighborhoods and businesses. Some of the homeless were already in the neighborhood, but many of the homeless wouldn't be in that particular place unless we were there, assisting them.
Mind you, the day shelter program works. We provide a place of peace and opportunities for people to change their lives. Many of the folks coming to our day shelter have been doing work, gotten housing, gotten jobs, gotten in treatment, and become full time employed. Mind you, that isn't just from our program by itself, but we are the first step up, the place where people learn to live in community, the place where people find out about the basic helps, the place where they can get the basic needs to sleep that night, the place where they can rest from the stress of their lives in order to have enough brain cells to figure out what they can do with their lives.
Of course, not everyone who wants a shower or clothes or a bite to eat are ready to change. Most people aren't. And some people, a few, have pretty anti-social behavior. They yell and scream. Many people drink in public (of course, they don't have anywhere else to drink). And, of course, this impacts the neighborhood.
I invited the neighborhood to come and talk to us about any issues they had, and six people did. Boy, they were angry. And they don't like our ministry. They said that these people just needed jobs and we asked them if they could get jobs for them. Well, sure, they said, if they don't have a record and have ID and have some experience. But the prevailing attitude of the meeting is that the homeless are bad, dangerous people and if they can't be out of the neighborhood, they need to be unseen, unheard.
According to these people, there is an impact on the neighborhood, although minimal. There is a park bench on which our folks drink... that's not good. In the house next to our church, the couple who lives there are often woke up early on Saturday morning by our people waiting for us to open. That has to change. Sometimes there are people on the property when we are closed, which makes the neighbors nervous. And some of our people go through the recycle bins on trash day.
But they weren't angry just at these true problems. They were upset that these folks were not acting "appropriate" in church. (One person said in our sanctuary, "I wouldn't let people speak such shit in the Lord's house." We all laughed.)They were angry that these people had no work to do, were "loitering". They were angry that our program was "enabling" them to live an "anti-social" lifestyle. They were angry that we didn't have enough rules. They felt that these people should just tow the line. Their line.
They didn't understand that the homeless has a different line. A different culture. A different point of view. I am not saying that the homeless culture is an always successful one, but it works when you are forced on the street. And the middle class needs to remember that it is their culture that forces homelessness as an option. One neighbor talked about his son, how he wouldn't "follow the rules" and so was kicked out. "And I don't care" he said, "if he's sleeping in a car. He can't come home."
One person in the group said it clearly, "I hate to sound like a cliche, but I just don't want it in my neighborhood." Meaning the homeless.
It is not my job to tell these neighbors to accept the homeless culture. They have a right to their culture, their way of life. They have built it, and they can have it. The homeless also have a right to their way of life as long as it doesn't interfere with anyone else. I can't tell them not to live that way.
What neither the homeless nor the neighbors understand is that it is our task, the church's task, to help both sides accept the other. To bring peace and cooperation to the neighborhood. To help all in need, no matter who they are, and to create community of love. It is almost impossible to bring love amidst warring factions. But it can be done.
The first step is listening to the needs and demands of each side. The second step is to build trust on both sides. Eventually, for there to be peace, we must have relationship between the two camps. I hope we will be given a chance to do that.
I hope I don't die of a heart attack before that happens.