Monday, July 21, 2008

The Homeless In America

This has been on my heart for a very long time. It’s about the way many people view the homeless in the United States, and how people often treat them as non-persons. There are people working in social services and Christian ministries helping the homeless; yet harboring contempt for them and entertaining stereotypes. I wonder if such people help the indigent just to make themselves feel better, more so than caring about the plights of these people. My own experiences in dealing with the destitute in ministry can attest to such attitudes and stereotypes from co-laborers. I believe some people think they are “more valuable” then the homeless person, but not in God’s eyes.

There are people who will travel around the world to save a whale beached off the Pacific coast, but how many of us pass by these people daily--sleeping on sidewalks, walking the streets, and digging in garbage dumpsters for food. I know of many Christians and non-secular folks who assume the homeless are lazy, looking for handouts, looking for the easy way, etc., yet I believe with all my heart there could be no harder, dirtier “job” as being homeless. It is not a life of ease. It is demeaning, humiliating, difficult and perilous. And they see the contempt in people’s eyes for them; even from some who say they “care”.

Do we even know their stories before making presumptions about them? How many served our country faithfully during wartime, only to come back here and be living on the streets? I find this unconscionable. Many are families, headed by single women, and even still, a great deal are mentally ill. Here are a few statistics from a couple of sources.

On the National Coalition For Homeless Veterans Website:
“The U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says the nation's homeless veterans are mostly males (4 % are females). The vast majority are single, most come from poor, disadvantaged communities, 45% suffer from mental illness, and half have substance abuse problems. America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Forty-seven percent of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam Era. More than 67% served our country for at least three years and 33% were stationed in a war zone.”

“On any given night in America, anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless, according to estimates of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

According to a December, 2000 report of the US Conference of Mayors:

*single men comprise 44 percent of the homeless, single women 13 percent, families with children 36 percent, and unaccompanied minors seven percent.
*the homeless population is about 50 percent African-American, 35 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Native American and 1 percent Asian.

Most Christians can see the injustice of the plight of unborn children concerning abortion, but we have limited sympathy for someone dying because of lack of medical care, roaming the streets, or starving to death in America. Without knowing anything about a homeless person--- not knowing one thing, many people immediately surmise the fault lies with the individual in such a predicament. Yet how do we know what has happened to a particular person who ends up living on the street? Do we ever take the time to even smile or say hello to the homeless, let alone engage them in conversation? People should not make a blanket assertion about the homeless based on past experiences with certain individuals and cultural stereotypes.

Many people assert that homeless people are dangerous; well, so might be the man selling ice cream to kids playing in a neighborhood. Anyone can be dangerous: cops can be dangerous, teachers can be dangerous, husbands and wives can be dangerous. Yet, it is true, there is a street culture more prone to higher crime, however in any major metropolitan area, people walk pass unknown dangerous people all the time. Yet we continue to live our lives, we don’t let fear dictate our lives. Certainly, as in all matters of security, one should be cautious, but should we stereotype everything unfamiliar to us? A group of black men approaching you on the sidewalk? A homeless woman pushing a cart? Ah, here comes a business man in a suit, rest easy on this one.

I think our culture has come to dehumanize homeless people to a large extent. Their plight has become “common” to the public eye. Of course, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, we count our blessings in Christ and in America, and our hearts reach out to them. But what about the other 363 days of the year? Granted, we cannot help every person we meet on the street financially, but what about just treating them like any other human being? That costs us nothing.

I was reading an account from a homeless woman, which broke my heart. She said people look upon her “as trash”. People would avoid looking at her. It is bad enough to roam endlessly around looking for shelter, possibly in physical pain, hungry, but to know people think of you as trash is so unnecessarily hurtful. There was so much emotional pain in her testimony.

It costs us nothing to say “hello” to someone. Or even a simple smile to acknowledge you are a human being and you have value despite your circumstances. And is it fair to assume things about a person we do not even know their name or a single thing about them? From war heroes to lawyers, to mothers and their children, we should treat them as human beings, with feelings, and with the hope God has for them, that they will know Him and come out of the messes they are in. Homeless people can discern what a person really thinks of them. Being fair costs us nothing, and is it not the right thing to do? Jesus warned in the last days people hearts will wax cold, and we must all be on guard not to become so desensitize to the plights of the homeless around us.

Matthew 25:32-40
32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, and fed thee ? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee ?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.