~Addressing Homelessness – The First Myth~
The Core Team of FCC Pomona hosted a house meeting with current and former residents of Our House Shelter to learn what people experience now as impediments to housing and what they think would work better than it is now. I wrote about this meeting last month.
We are sifting through the false assumptions that continue to surround perspectives on homelessness. Recently, Adam Murray, the executive director of Inner City Law, which serves homeless and working poor clients wrote about four of these false assumptions. He calls them “myths”. I am going to highlight these in the subsequent issues and hope, like me, you will reconsider assumptions you currently hold.
Mr. Smith writes:
“Some myths about homelessness get repeated so often that they become accepted as true. But with more than 31,000 people sleeping in our parks and on our sidewalks every night here in Los Angeles County, we cannot allow fallacies to drive our homeless policies.”
The first myth is: “Some people just want to live on the street.” This is perhaps the most dangerous myth about homelessness. People do resist moving into short term shelters. I’ve had people turn me down for a ride to the Armory: the cold/inclement weather shelter in Pomona. Often the requirements of a shelter are more than people can bear because it “may require separating family members, losing one’s belongings, or submitting to religious proselytizing or demoralizing rules. But that is not the same as wanting to sleep outdoors.”
People who are experiencing homelessness have lost most of the control over their lives. While to you and I it makes sense to trade something we value for shelter, this is not the lived experience of people without permanent or temporary shelter. Jesus met people where they were, in their need, in their lived experience. Healing came for most people after Jesus demonstrated compassion and established trust.
Mr. Smith observes, “If living without shelter is perceived as just a poor personal choice, punitive law enforcement approaches may seem reasonable. But they are not. Aggressive ticketing for loitering or jaywalking, bans against living in vehicles and sweeps of encampments criminalize daily life for those who have no place to go.”
Our Core Team recognizes that clemency for people who have these kinds of infractions must be part of any reasonable approach to significantly reduce homelessness. While it is unlikely we can completely end homelessness, there is every reason to believe it can be significantly reduced. People deserve to be “approached respectfully and offered actual housing, not just temporary shelter.” We learned that the housing first way of doing things, as in Utah, has significantly reduced homelessness and saved hundreds of thousands of public dollars otherwise spent on medical care, policing and prisons.
Being homeless is not a crime, but much of our society is finding ways to criminalize it. In 2007, LA County’s Project 50 began. “It sought to house the most vulnerable and chronically homeless adults living on skid row. Four years later, only 20 participants had left the project and 94 people were still living in stable housing.” Clearly those 94 individuals chose to be housed. People do not choose to live on the street. Circumstances in their lives lead them to accept they have no other choice.
The myth that “people choose to live on the street” too easily lets us off the hook. It’s a myth I myself have perpetuated, but I am learning that my assumption was a false one, built on my own need to protect myself. Jesus said, “When you do it to the least of these, you do it also to me.” I happen to believe that Jesus is still alive in the world and if we let the Spirit open us to the work of compassion, we will find Jesus alive in the hearts of people who, for a hundred different reasons, struggle to find shelter. They may not be likeable or even appreciative, but still, they are children of God.
A Note about Our Core Team
Our Core Team is the organizing mechanism without congregation, discerning ministry in the community that is important to our congregation and bringing that to the organization of organizations to which we belong, ICON. Together, we work to build the necessary power to address shared concerns to build the common good.
The deepest shared concern that our Core Team recently identified is homelessness. It impacts us directly at the church in many ways. People without shelter often seek refuge on the church facility. We also support the ongoing utility needs of Our House Shelter, operated by Hope Partners. If you are interested in being part of this ministry, please join us at our next scheduled gathering, Feb. 7 after worship.