Homelessness: A Christian Response?

Homelessness on the home front is quite a different proposition than homelessness under the overpasses. Occasionally we see them clustered or alone with packs, bags, and shopping carts under the bridges in the Central Business District very close to The Mission. Just a few years ago there was a virtual tent city of them living in Parks throughout Downtown. They are still here if somewhat less visible.

So what is the “Christian response” when a homeless person takes up residence on your own front stoop? How should it be handled? What care, if any, should be given? In the Prayers of the People found in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer we read:

“With all our heart and with all our mind, let us pray to the Lord, saying, “Lord have mercy.”

For the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.”

As the days grew short and the weather started to hint at winter during the Season that we call Advent, a man wandered onto the property located at 1519 Esplanade. We call this property Dodwell House. This historic house is under constant restoration and renovation with the hope of turning it into a community center for the people of Tremé and surrounding neighborhoods. Often volunteers can be seen entering, working, and giving of their time and labor in this exciting adventure. But this wandering man was not one of them. He is a homeless man. This wandering man, let’s call him Ishmael, is a man of the streets with no more than a few garbage bags for his possessions.

Darryl Durham, the leader of the Tremé Community Chorus and Anna’s Arts for Kids program lives there in order to be a watchman for tools and work being done. Just so, the first encounter with Ishmael was a confrontation with Darryl. He claimed, in his tattered attire, that he owned the property and would have Darryl put out! Ishmael held a dirty ball cap in front of his lips to which he conversed in harried and confused ways. He pushed and shoved Darryl and forced his way onto the property itself. After a brief scuffle he was forced to stand outside the broken and falling gates of the property. What is the Christian response?

Somewhat alarmed for his safety Darryl contacted the church. The response was factually that St. Anna’s called the Homeless Crisis Line, UNITY, and one other agency not now remembered. Each without compassion said, “Call the police.” What was the Christian response? For Luigi the Parish Administrator making the calls he was stricken. He asked the priest simply, “Where is the compassion? They just don’t care!”So, a call was made to the First District Police precinct, the one covering this area. It seemed a bit of a waste of man power with all that is going on in the city. They said they would come and ‘take care of it.’

Even then, ‘taking care of it’ was in the form of loading Ishmael up into the police car and dropping him some blocks away. Yes, he found his way back to the Dodwell House that very day. You see, even though he is mentally disabled, at least appearing so, to bring in a person like this takes lots of time, lots of paper work, and as legend has it police hate to become bound in that process which takes them off the streets for the better part of a day.

That was about five weeks ago now. At this point, passersby offer Ishmael some change, a plate of food. Why one good soul who ministers to the homeless came by and gave him socks (very important for those on the streets). As you pass by you can see Ishmael huddled on the front steps now surrounded with several large black garbage bags, he has set up a tent like place and has ‘borrowed’ a garbage can. He is setting up his home – yes like the nomadic Ishmael. He has been marginalized and institutionally dehumanized, again, not unlike Ishmael and the tribe of Abraham. He sits huddled up for the better part engaging a few in utterances and murmurs. For much of the day his ball cap is in front of those lips and he converses with it or into it.

Darryl passes him each day wondering, “Will today be the day that he gets violent once again?” and “What can we do?” Our friend on the front stoop puts off volunteers not sure what to make of the situation. What is the Christian response to Ishmael?

For us it is evident that he is a danger to himself from exposure, disease, and perhaps even the predatory behavior of some people. For us he is a passive threat to our own safety – not because he is mean or any such thing, but, rather he is mentally ill. Do we keep calling the police? Do we call a TV station to report? The bigger question is this, “Where is our compassion as citizens? Not to cast out or chase away but to care for those in need; real need. Over the next 72 hours our city will experience near freezing temperatures if not freezing. What shall we do? Do we take him in and enable him to continue his stoop life on the streets? Is that really what is best? We have done so in the past at our little church. In each case the situation ended poorly.

Yes, Ishmael is but one man. For us he is an icon, an archetype, of a society that lives life in double standards of compassion. As it was said, “Remember, whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.”