Thursday, April 30, 2015

Transforming Grace

Trevor was a young man when he became homeless.  He had worked a few jobs, but it was hard to stay with any of them.  As long as he could remember, he was struggling with himself.  He would become furious with his mother.  There were good reasons, always, for him to be angry, but his response seemed over the top.  He would rage, throw things, break things, and people would back off, fear him.  That was somewhat satisfying, but he was as scared of himself as his family was.  His mother would tell him that he was a bad boy, his father would express his disappointment in him.
When he became homeless, his family fully expected it.  They figured he would be a criminal or a bum. It’s the kind of person he was.  So they offered him help, but at a distance.  They would invite him to family gatherings, and most of the time they wouldn’t show up to get him as they said they would.  They didn’t know how to handle him.

Even after Trevor had been camping for a long time, he liked to work.  He wanted the respect and pay of a job well done.  He would clean up bars after they were closed, for nothing.  To work eased his mind, gave him something to focus on apart from himself.  He needed that.  Because he couldn’t stand himself.  He felt he was a good person, but he couldn’t help but look back and see all the mistakes, all the people yelling at him, all the problems he had caused.

Darren was a pastor of a local church.  He allowed Trevor to sleep overnight behind the church on occasion.  Trevor asked to help clean up, to care for the facility, and Darren figured there was no harm in it.  Trevor did a fantastic job.  Every task he was given he did with gusto and did more cleaning that he was originally asked.  Darren invited Trevor to stay behind the church every night, because he was a good man, and helpful.

Eventually, there were problems.  Trevor had a habit of collecting too much stuff around him, making his area look like a trash heap.  Darren gave him a garbage can and asked him to keep his area clean, and Trevor did his best.  People visited Trevor in the middle of the night, and Trevor would allow people to stay there overnight.  Eventually, Darren wrote out a contract with Trevor, clearly stating the rules of their agreement.  Trevor had to keep his area clean, and couldn’t have guests in his space, and if he wanted to talk to someone, they’d have to speak quietly or go off of the property.  After Darren explained the reasons why, Trevor understood and dealt with the issues.

Then Trevor had a bad day.  They didn’t come often, but when he had them, he was on the edge of exploding.  On this day, Darren happened to come upon him and told him firmly that he had to clean up his garbage.  Trevor started throwing all of his possessions at Darren, screaming, “How about this?  How about this?”  

Darren stood there, and calmly said, “Trevor, you need to calm down.”  

“How about you just leave me alone? Leave!”  

Darren stood firmly and said, “No, I won’t leave.”  

“Leave!  I’m going to hurt you!  You know I will!” 

Darren responded, “If you hurt me, I will still love you.  I will still do what I can for you.”  Another homeless person saw this and went to Trevor and calmed him down.

Trevor knew that he would be asked to leave now.  He wasn’t worthy.  He had screwed up another part of his life.  Another rejection because he was too weak.  Darren saw him the next morning and said, “Great, Trevor.  You got that area cleaned up.  Thanks for doing that. Did you need to come in and use the bathroom?”  Trevor realized that Darren wasn’t going to reject him, no matter what.  He is amazed at the grace he has been shown.  He didn’t know such people existed.

But word got around the church at Trevor’s explosion at Darren.  Many of the church members decided that Trevor was a danger.  What if he blew up at one of the church members?  What if he hurt someone, or put someone in the hospital?  The issue was brought up at a church board meeting, where they asked Darren, “How long will you have this man at the church?  He’s dangerous, and we don’t feel safe.”  

Darren responded, “I understand that having Trevor staying here is a risk.  You have to admit, as well, that he is an asset.  When have you seen the bathrooms or the kitchen so clean?  Every true act of grace is a risk.  To accept the difficult or the dangerous is hard and sometimes scary.  But this is what Jesus did for us.  He took us in, when we didn’t deserve it, when we were so much a risk to him that he died for us.  Grace isn’t something that we just receive.  It is something we pass on.”

When it was clear that Darren wouldn’t change his mind, the board was divided.  After much discussion, it was decide that they needed to make a vote as to whether Darren should still be pastor.  They took a formal vote, and the pastor was allowed to remain, by a narrow margin.  Some church members decided that they couldn’t be in a church that had a person like Trevor hanging around, so they left the church. Darren, meanwhile, carefully kept this all from Trevor, so he didn’t feel that is was another mark of rejection against him.

Trevor stayed at the church for years.  He had other explosions, but never with a member of the church.  He softened over the years and was accepted by everyone in the church as a full member.  Eventually, Trevor got a paying job and an apartment, which he kept a terrible mess all the time, but he always visited his friend Darren.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Direct Encounter

"Yes, we have a responsibility to ask the questions of why people are poor, to lobby for better treatment of the poor, to support agencies that who have expertise with the poor, but we also should also be inspired to give directly to the poor. Not because it is the most effective, but because the direct encounter with those who are suffering, and the courage to give without controlling how it is received is important for our own spiritual well being."

Monday, April 27, 2015

Some Basic Homeless Statistics

On a given winter night in 2013, the point in time survey found that there are 610,000 homeless people in the United States, sleeping on the street, vehicles or temporary shelters.

Throughout any given year, there are approximately 3.5 million people who become homeless in the United States, which is about one percent of the total population.

About 2/3 of the homeless population are male, 1/3 female.

22 percent of the homeless are under 18.
About 25 percent of the homeless are families of three or more.
64 percent of the homeless are single individuals.

Homeless populations tend to rise in the summer.

41 percent of the homeless are black.
37 percent of the homeless are white.
10 percent of the homeless are Hispanic.

There are different kinds of homelessness:
Couch surfing (staying with friends or family)
In a shelter, temporarily (6 months or less)
Living in an RV or vehicle
Sleeping on the street/camping

Although there are different stresses in each of the kinds of homelessness, what they all have in common is the uncertainty of how long one might be able to stay in any given place.  At any moment, in each of these situations, a person may be told to move out, with little or no notice.

Approximately 70 percent of all homeless people get off the street in two months or less.
Only about ten percent of all homeless folks are "chronically" homeless, for a year or more.

The length one is homeless is a serious issue.  The stress of homelessness is akin to being in a home with an abusive person.  One isn't abused all the time, but the stress of the potential of abuse is always there.  Even so, a homeless person may not be forced to move all the time, or to be attacked, or to be yelled at, but the stress of it is there always.  Thus, just as there is a difference between someone who has lived in a home with an abused person for a month, as opposed to two years, so the same with the homeless.  The longer one lives with the stresses of homelessness, the more likely someone is to have severe mental health issues, cognitive issues, addictions, chronic health problems and other issues related to stress.

Most important medical issues of the homeless:

PTSD-- It is determined that up to 95 percent of all the homeless have experienced trauma.
Untreated dental issues
Untreated cuts or injuries
Chronic diseases
Respiratory illness

A person is three times as likely to die on the street than in housing.

Statistics from: National Coilition for the Homeless; National Alliance to End Homelessness; the 2010 Annual Report on Homelessness to Congress; The 2013 Point in Time Homeless Count; The Homeless Hub; National Student Campaign against Homelessness and Hunger.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Basic Education on the Homeless

No matter how much we think we know about the homeless, there's always more to learn.  Here are some basic articles and videos about helping and humanizing the homeless.

Health issues for the homeless
"Trauma, in one Australian survey, affected 100 percent of homeless women and 90 percent of homeless men. "

Top ten health issues for the homeless
"Homelessness has also been associated with seizures. In one 2006 study, 49.3% of people in the sample group were diagnosed with epilepsy and 40.7% with alcohol-related seizures."

Why the homeless are so much trouble to our society
"Our irrational disgust is the source for the many reasons we avoid the homeless"

What prejudice against the homeless looks like
"I wonder if homeless people go to heaven."

What causes homelessness
No matter what the specific causes are, every person is homeless because they don't have a sufficient support network

Susan Fiske on Dehumanization
"People see the homeless as a garbage heap."

How are the homeless dehumanized
“The homeless are under constant danger of attack.”

What rehumanizing the homeless looks like
"Homeless man gets a home"

Rehumanizing the homeless
“Assisting the homeless isn’t as easy as giving someone a sack lunch.”

Helping the homeless locally
"Why has God forsaken us?"

How we can really help the homeless
“The real solution is to provide opportunities for the homeless to help themselves.”

Homeless bill of rights
“Better laws and passage of good bills don't just happen.”

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Africa's Poor v. America's Poor

It is pretty easy to look at the homeless in the United States and say, "Yeah, they're poor, but they aren't as poor as the starving people in..." (name impoverished country, usually in Africa).

Certainly, if we are talking about physical depravity and lack of what helps us survive, those in the poorest countries in the world are worse off than the homeless.  The homeless are resourceful, and often live off the toss-offs of the wealthy country they live in.  A dumpster behind a single grocery story in the United States has better and more plentiful food than what is offered a whole city of beggars in a poor country.  In impoverished cities or nations, the problem is scarcity, and while some use that scarcity for their own advantage, the major problem is a universal one.

But if you look at the poor people of other nations, you can see a major difference between them and the poor of the United States:

Do you notice the differences?  The non-Americans were all obviously starving, that's one difference.  But the more obvious difference is that the non-Americans are with others, working with others, but the Americans are alone.  This is probably just a result of the style of the photographers, but it also reflects a reality both live with.  The poverty of Africa is a poverty of resource to certain communities.  The poverty of America is a poverty of community which results in scarcity.

The poverty of the homeless person or of the welfare mom or of the mentally ill is not a lack of food, but a lack of meaningful community.  Poverty is not primarily an economic reality.  Rather, it is a social reality that has an economic result.  The poverty of the third world is a poverty of a community.  The poverty of the United States is a poverty of individuals.

The poverty of the United States, which might also include starvation, but certainly includes dangers of hypothermia and dehydration and sickness due to stress and unsanitary conditions, but also has an added layer of daily rejection from society.  

Not only is a poor individual in the US facing a lack of their survival needs, but they also have people telling them how bad they are, forcing them to move on a regular basis, assumptions that they are criminal and people telling them how they are not doing enough.  They are rejected by a whole society, outcasts from community, forced to not only be poor, but to be isolated.

I am not sure which poverty is worse. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Breaking Down Hobophobia

Prejudice is seeing a person, not as an individual, but as a part of a cultural movement you dislike.   It is an instant reaction, not something we control.  As soon as we see someone, we have a response from our most primitive, fastest part of our brain, and our minds have already judged that person.  When we see a young black man, our instant response is fear (even if you are black).  When we see a handicapped person, our instant response is pity.  When we see a wealthy person, our instant response is envy.   That doesn’t mean we have to respond to that instant response, but the response, for most people, is there and instant. 

Studies have shown that the strongest, most pervasive of prejudiced instant responses in American society is toward the homeless.  The far majority of people in the United States, when they see a homeless person, have a response of disgust.  Susan Fiske, in summarizing her analysis of the data, said, “A homeless person is seen as a garbage heap.”  This is an interesting metaphor, because this is how many city governments treat the homeless: piles of trash that should be moved on from place to place because there is no garbage heap to dump them on.

Once we see people as disgusting and horrible, if we give into that emotion, we will have one of two responses: anger or fear.  We might feel anger if we feel that they are lying by their appearance, trying to strike pity, but really being criminals or hidden monsters.  This might cause us to want to push them away, perhaps say something in anger or even desire to do violence to them (although we never would).  Our instant response might cause us to see the homeless as so much an alien, a blight on our land, that we fear them and what they might do to us or our children.  We don’t want to harm them so much as get them away, to transform them into people we can appreciate and care for.

Many of us reading this might say that we have never had these emotions about the homeless.  As far as we know, we have not felt disgust or fear or anger toward someone just because they were homeless.  The other instant reaction that might come up, and is just as limiting, is pity.  We might see a homeless person and instantly feel sorry for them.  This seems to us a positive response, and so we often allow ourselves to give into our impulses of pity.  But these impulses also diminishes an adult, even infantilizes them.  A person filled with pity might want to teach the homeless how to live, to “mentor” them, to assume what they need and give it to them.

How do we know if we have a prejudiced attitude toward the homeless?  Take this simple yes or no quiz:
  • Do we assume we know a persons’ life story by looking at them?
  • Do we assume we know how a person got into trouble?
  • Do we assume they are criminals, lazy or miserable?
  • When we see two homeless people talking together in private, do we assume they are up to no good?
  • When we see a homeless person working on two or more bikes, do we think they have stolen them?
  • When we see a homeless person pushing a shopping cart, do we assume they stole it from a grocery store?
  • Do we think homeless people need just one thing to help them? (e.g. food, a place in a shelter, a kick in the butt, a listening ear?)
  • Do we assume that all homeless want to live like us? Or that they all want to be homeless?
  • Do we assume that all the homeless are addicts?
  • Do we look down on a homeless person doing something that wouldn’t be considered “bad” if they did it in their own personal apartment? (e.g. drinking a beer, having sex with their girlfriend, sleeping)
  • If we saw a homeless person on our property, is our impulse to call the police to get rid of them?
  • Do we want to take care of the homeless, assuming they can’t help themselves?
  • Do we assume all homeless are mean?  Or dangerous?  Do we assume all the homeless people are friendly? Or looking for help?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, it means you have prejudiced assumptions about the homeless.  But don’t beat yourself up about it, almost all homeless folks have one or more of the assumptions above, even if they themselves don’t fall in any of the categories.
Homeless folks are people.  Yes, many of them do need help, and yes, some of them are criminals.  Just like housed folks.  Some are mean and some are friendly.  Some have hope and some have given up.   The homeless are young and old, men and women, educated and drop outs, employed and unemployed. 
However, there are a few generalizations we can make about all homeless folks:

1.       They are stressed
Because of the stigma of homelessness, even if they don’t believe it, they know that most people do.  So they don’t know when they might get attacked, abused, yelled at or told to move.  They might get ticketed or even arrested for something they didn’t do.  Generally, they have to work hard to get less, just to survive.  Almost everyone who has been homeless for a year or more have PTSD, and this stress leads to a shorter life.  Stress is usually the cause of addictive behavior on the street, and it requires a strong will not to give in to that crutch. To just leave the stress behind.

2.       They are lacking support
If a homeless person had adequate support, they would be staying in someone’s home.  We don’t know why they lack that support, if it is their own fault, other’s fault or some combination. But most people have friends or family who will let them crash on a couch, if nothing else.  Some people are unable to obtain support from their friends because they have been stigmatized by their homelessness.  The homeless are the 1 percent who have no where to go, no one to help them in the way they really need help.  Even those who help the homeless full time don’t have the resources to provide for them what they need. 

3.       They don’t know who to trust
Because of the widespread prejudice against the homeless, what a person looks like may not be the truth.  Perhaps they are trying to take advantage of you, they are using the poor to prop themselves up.  Government agencies provide help with so many strings it's often not help at all. There are shelters that abuse their guests, and people who look like they want to help who turn on you in a moment.  This is because almost everyone feels superior to homeless people and some don’t have any problem with stealing or taking advantage of the homeless.  It is easier to con the homeless because they are so desperate.  Because the homeless have been hurt so many times, they don’t trust people easily.

4.       They need opportunities
The homeless don’t really need a handout, although they might ask for that because they think it is all they can get.  What they really need is an opportunity for a better life.  Each homeless person understands a good opportunity differently.  For some, it is a job.  For others, a safe place to sleep.  For others, an apartment.  For others, a friend to stay with.  Some need mental health assistance, some need rehab, some need work to do.   But opportunities for the homeless are hard to come by, and the longer they stay on the street the harder they are to find.

If we want to help the homeless, then there are a few things that, knowing these facts, come to mind immediately.  The first is that, just like any racism or sexism, we need to speak out against hobophobia.  If anyone makes a prejudiced statement about the homeless, they should be gently but firmly corrected.  We don’t know any person’s story, and we must not make assumptions or generalizations.

Second, we should make relationships with the homeless.  We must not treat them like a group, as if their issues or cares are all the same.  We should get to know them individually, listening to their story and responding appropriately, knowing that they have a unique experience and a unique life-situation.  This means we know fewer homeless than those who serve hundreds, but we can have a greater chance to actually help them if we get to know them.

Third, we provide opportunities for the homeless we get to understand.  We ask what they want and need and we see if we can help them take the next step to escaping poverty or the stigma of homelessness.  We don’t all have the same resources, so we won’t be able to give our homeless friend what they might need.  We won’t always know if what our homeless friend wants is what will really improve their lives.  But in friendship and partnership, we can improve the life of our homeless friend, just by being their friend.