Community

My job takes me into downtown Denver. I observe the homeless persons and wonder about their paths that led them to where they are. Some are truly in a bad place psychologically. Others are simply trying to survive.

Friday morning I saw two people asleep on the sidewalk, up against a building. It was about 6:30 in the morning (I was 30 minutes into my own 2-hour-each-way commute). A pair of police officers rode along the sidewalk waking them up. I was watching, wondering about how the two would be treated: the officers were concerned about the men, asking if they were OK. The men roused themselves, picked up their few belongings, and left.

Denver has a housing lottery that, yes, I’m registered for but only a small percentage of persons actually get housing every year. The apartments are scattered through the area.

I’ve been thinking about this lottery.

Whether we want to acknowledge it, the homeless do have a community. It may be loose or close or both but people without homes have connections to others.

When we place a person in housing our task is complete. (Please observe the patronizing way I just said that. Place? A person is not an object to place on a shelf). Our job is successful: this person has housing.

Except we may have just removed that person from their community and from their support system.

Is this truly a good way to approach the very real problem of homelessness?

I’m certain that some persons move into apartments with support services because those persons are in need of counseling or other social services. The man with the very long unkempt hair and beard who was dancing on the 16th Street Mall is someone who I would hope would have a place to live like this.

But for many of us, is the loss of community more important than gaining shelter?

In my post about being othered I talked about being viewed differently. I’m wondering if this difference extends to the need for community. I think it does and the feeling is that we are not in community therefore there is no need to be concerned about disrupting community.

Perhaps we can pay attention to that first. Perhaps instead of taking our ministries out of the church we invite people in. We stop caring if they obviously haven’t had a shower in months and welcome them into our churches. We go find them and bring them in. We welcome them to Christ’s table. We let them line up for communion as many times as they want and hand them a hunk of the blessed bread rather than a small piece.

We become part of THEIR community fully accepting of them and before long they will stop being “them.” We will all become us.

Advertisements

Becoming Someone Other

One reason I delayed telling all of you about living in my car is that when I told people here in Denver I was immediately “othered.” It was assumed I had changed somehow: that there must be something wrong with me that resulted in my homelessness. I was no longer one of the group. I was part of that “other” group, the group that “we” don’t belong to. “We” who live in our pretty houses or apartments and pay our bills and save our money for our vacations. Yes, it was true that I wasn’t living in an apartment and had no money to go on vacation, but why was I suddenly different? Why was I suddenly viewed as a lesser person and ostracized from my former community?

I experienced people who I knew cared for me making decisions about me rather than with me. The belief was that since I was homeless I had a reduced, perhaps missing sense of “agency.” Agency is the ability of each of us to be our own advocates, make our own decisions, and care for ourselves. When I shared I was homeless I was immediately transformed in their eyes into someone who had no sense of agency.

People I told began immediately offering ways to help but this was limited to identifying organizations I could contact for that help. This would be followed by assuring me I was in their thoughts and prayers. I received an offer of direct assistance from one person early on for a hot meal and an offer to let me shower and do a load of laundry. I am deeply thankful to this friend of mine who asked what I needed then gave practical help. Now that I have told all of you of my situation, I have received other concrete offers of which I am also grateful.

One of the lessons I have learned is that we believe we must minister to the homeless and not with them. We make decisions for them instead of asking homeless persons what they need. We assume we know what they need or that they don’t know what they need and we must figure it out for them. We design ministries without including the persons receiving the ministry at the table.

What if we asked them what they need instead of assuming we know? How much more effective would our ministries be if we truly understood the homeless experience? I don’t know what it’s like to live outside with no shelter or in a shelter I created from cardboard boxes. I don’t need to push my belongings around in a shopping cart. I can lock myself into my car and I have a cell phone I can use to call 911 if I get scared (I haven’t). But I do know about being nervous at night and about trying to stay warm. I know what it’s like to not stretch out on a bed or not be able to get up in the middle of the night and go to my bathroom. I know what it’s like to depend on the public showers at the local recreation center.

My focus is creating an income that will support rent and utilities and understand my call to this ministry so that I may help others. Certainly, what I need isn’t what other homeless persons need. I know there are homeless persons who struggle with mental illness or addiction disease or other chronic health issues. I know there are people who go without food because they don’t have access or ability to provide food for themselves.

I know what I need. I imagine that most homeless persons know what they need and the list and the priorities might differ for every person. We must first focus on supporting each person’s agency instead of making decisions for them and therefore keeping them in a submissive or lower position. We each have personal power and my power is equal to your power.

It is easy to create that “other” group of people in our minds. It is hard work to recognize all the subtle ways we do this othering. It involves confronting our own biases and preconceived notions about people and their living situations. I ask that you think about how you view the people you encounter who look like they could use a shower or are pushing a grocery cart down the street. Thank you.

Coming Clean

I have been dishonest with all of you for a year now. I was afraid to tell you for fear you would reject me. It is time to tell you what’s been happening in my life.

I am homeless. I lost my job a year ago this past May and lost my apartment August 2017. I stayed with a friend for a while; my first night in my car was October 17, 2017. I have only worked 2 weeks during this time through a temporary staffing agency and I have tried to get my life back on track, which for me means a job that will pay enough for an apartment.

But then a friend asked me, what if this is God’s path for you right now? And I immediately realized she was right.

No wonder God hasn’t been very clear every time I’ve asked about my mission and purpose: if I had known, would I have been willing to do this? The answer is, no! I wouldn’t have voluntarily stepped into living in my car! But here I am and I’m learning and growing so I can teach and advocate and help others.

I have no income and few benefits: I have a food stamps card and I receive Medicaid. Neither one allows for housing. Food stamps only allows for the purchase of ingredients; prepared foods such as fried chicken or a deli sandwich aren’t allowed, neither are personal care items such as toothpaste, household items like spray cleaner for the car interior, or pet care items such as cat food and litter for my friend Suki.

I ask for your prayers as I learn about this journey. What is the ministry I am to be doing? What does God want me to accomplish? Is the reason for this so that I am a witness who can articulate the challenges to a city full of people who assume there must be something wrong with me? Will you help me in this ministry, in focusing my efforts and providing me with the tools to work for God?

I’m glad you clicked on the link to the blog: this is a complicated situation and a Facebook post can’t describe it. You know the basics now: I have been living in my car since October 2017. My son’s cat joined me in November; she was sick and I initially took her in until we got her well, but she’s been with me ever since. I’m glad she’s with me – she’s been a good friend and on some cold nights a nice little furnace!

I can’t possible talk about the entire experience in one blog post. I will be talking about the lessons learned and what I see as my forward direction over time. For now, here are some general facts for the Denver area:

This year’s Point In Time survey counted 5317 Denver citizens who were homeless, with 1308 persons unsheltered (not staying in transitional housing or other shelters). I was not counted in this survey and I wonder how many other persons weren’t counted as well, as we weren’t in the “usual” locations for homeless persons.

I have read that there are 170,000 persons in Denver at immediate risk of becoming homeless. All it would take is a job loss, an illness, a car repair bill, or similar circumstance and they would not be able to pay the rent and would be on the streets.

More people are becoming homeless because of gentrification of especially the downtown neighborhoods: residents of affordable apartments are being faced with enormous rent increases or told they cannot stay in the apartment building during renovation (which then increases the rent).

I fit into the jobless category: I lost my job and was unable to get another one within the timeframe necessary to prevent me losing my apartment. Unemployment benefits are too low to pay the rent and utilities, let alone pay for food or gas for the car for even nominal trips.

Thank you for reading this. I hope you will join me as I continue to walk this path and learn how God wants to use me. I am thankful to God for protecting me and providing for me this past year and I promise I will continue to listen for guidance. That guidance may come through you.

 

 

 

 

Creating Enemies

Years ago I began to think about how groups/coalitions are formed and saw that the quickest method was through what I dubbed “creation of a common enemy.” The first large example was 9/11 when suddenly everyone was flying an American flag and Bush’s popularity soared to something like 90%. But we do it all the time: sports teams are a perfect example. We band together, we feel related to others because we have a “common enemy” of the other team.

Other than school spirit and elections in general, I have not experienced a person or group attempting to manipulate us using this technique as I see our Executive Branch doing since the inaugural. Furthermore, I have never before experienced a feeling that there is a desire to oppress, divide, and silence the citizenry. I fear the desire is for power, not for the betterment of all the people in our country.

And as woman of faith, I admit that while I don’t believe people are evil, I believe there is a force, a presence of evil that expresses itself in many ways.

Perhaps what I label evil isn’t anything at all but a turning away from universal love, peace, equality for every person. Perhaps evil has no power at all but is simply neglect. Neglect that allows us to believe that if I’m okay then it doesn’t matter if anyone else suffers. Neglect that says hoarding of objects may be bad but hoarding of money and resources is admired. Neglect that feeds the seeds of human hate and its inevitable isolation, no matter how many times it tries to create enemies.

My prayer is that we not band together against an enemy but that we come together with a common purpose. The original US revolutionaries fought against an enemy, yes, but they were fighting FOR a set of ideals, of goals. Yes, they made some major mistakes along the way and expressed the morals of their European feudal ancestors far too often. They regarded colonialism as an ideal and not as the oppressive social structure it is. They did not apply the soaring words of the Declaration to people who didn’t look like them.

But we can always learn, grow, evolve. I think we have although like any real learning it happens in fits and starts.

We are presently in a start, not a fit. I pray we can stay there. Some examples:

The Women’s March on January 21 was about freedom, equality, and justice for our daughters and our sons.

When people were detained because of their birthplace and religion this past weekend, we stood up and said, “No.” And while the rest of us were standing up, the lawyers at the airports sat down with their laptops and filed legal papers on behalf of the detained.

Many many people have contributed to organizations fighting for equality. The ACLU and SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) are two that have received and are worthy of our support.

Government employees are starting/participating in “alt” and “rogue” addresses on social media. The prize-winning name for one of these sites, if there were a contest, would go to “ViralCDC” on Twitter. HHS, DOJ, USDA, NIH, NASA, NWS, EPA, National Park Service, and so on.

Knitters may still be knitting pink hats, readying for the next march. I wonder if the hats in some form will become an enduring symbol of positive resistance. The upcoming Time magazine cover is an indication of this.

There is a March for Science to stand up for truth and freedom of scientific inquiry coming up that will also be in many cities (follow March for Science on Twitter @sciencemarchdc).

My point is, I am encouraged at our response to attempts that seek to divide us. The next months may be more difficult than we would want, but perhaps we are holding ourselves accountable for too much complacency. I think we were lulled into thinking if some of us voted every few years all would be well. We were wrong, and we are changing our thinking.

Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, writing, calling, faxing in opposition to oppressive laws, working for justice, extending the hand of equality…these are all how we work to make this nation better.

See you out there.