The Common Good

Criminalizing Christ: The Nationwide Targeting of Homeless

There is no longer a war on hunger in this country.

There is no longer a war on poverty.

There is a war on the hungry. 

There is a war on the poor.

It is being waged all over the country with the most recent — and visible — battle coming from Raleigh, N.C., and the now-viral incident with the Rev. Hugh Hollowell’s Love Wins ministries.

It’s ironic, really.

Conservatives love to tell folks that the best way to end poverty, homelessness, and need in our country is through the work and generosity of private individuals and private donations, not through government programs.

The answer, they say, is charity.

Yet in a stroke of cruel hypocrisy, when charities actually address these issues in real life, they aren’t commended for their work.

Rather, they are threatened with arrest. 

That’s exactly what happened to Hollowell and others with Love Wins. But, Hollowell’s experience is far from an aberrant or isolated incident in this country, and it is critically important we recognize that. In fact, this is one of the dangers of the (appropriate and encouraging) outpouring of support for Love Wins: that we will see this one injustice in isolation rather than in its broader context.

Right now, there is a critical opportunity to pivot the conversation and show how this one incident is symptomatic of a much larger issue. See, across the country, cities and lawmakers are targeting people who are homeless (and those who help them) for arrest and for removal. And they have been for years, as the experiences of Food Not Bombs demonstrates, as well as this comprehensive report from the National Coalition for the Homeless about food-sharing restrictions.

The list of cities targeting the homeless is long, and it’s not just a symptom of conservativism or of the Deep South. This targeting crosses all political lines. The list of 10 Meanest Cities toward the homeless includes conservative bulwarks like Atlanta as well as liberal ones like Berkeley and San Francisco. Their list of ordinances and tactics targeting and criminalizing homelessness is long, creative, and diabolical.

Cities have made it illegal to lie down. They have made it illegal to share a meal with people who are homeless. They have made it illegal to sit in parks or on benches for long periods of time. They have made it illegal to eat in public spaces. They change their parks’ watering schedules to douse anyone staying there after hours. They have removed completely and banned park benches. They have banned panhandling.

Columbia, S.C., marks the most recent example. The inhumane law essentially criminalizes all people who are homeless and implements what amounts to a systemic forced migration of the homeless.

Now, it would be easy to blame police officers, who are carrying out these tasks. The culprits in these situations are rarely the police officers. In fact, the police chief in Columbia refuses to implement that city’s atrocious new law, saying, “Homelessness is not a crime … We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”  

The people pushing these laws, typically, are city planners, administrators, and elected officials who in their attempts to revitalize and redevelop urban centers with high-end developments, shopping districts, and other businesses simultaneously seek ways to get rid of homeless people living in their cities. 

Homeless people bring down property values. So, since they can’t be priced out of homes through redevelopment, they are simply transformed into criminals.

It is the cruel gentrification of the homeless. 

In other words, people who make their homes on city streets aren’t considered valid stakeholders — citizens — when planners seek new to revitalize urban centers. Rather than seek how such redevelopment can improve the lives of people experiencing homeless, city leaders consider them nuisances and problems that need to be solved. 

I can think of no other group of people in our country that can be targeted so systemically and so blatantly just for their very existence with so little outcry. It is heartening and encouraging to see so many cheering on Love Wins this week, and Hollowell’s nonprofit has courageously stood its ground without alienating others. Suddenly, homelessness is the subject of an international conversation. But now I pray we take this gift Love Wins has given the world and speak to the broader issue, not just the local, individual one.

As a Christian, I know Jesus teaches us that we are to offer food to the hungry, to welcome the stranger, to give water to the thirsty — the least of these on the margins of society. But he goes much farther than that. He identifies with the least of these so much so that he says any time there is a hungry, thirsty or ostracized person, that person is Christ himself. 

And if we don’t share our food, our water, or our welcome, then we are rejecting the Incarnation of God in this world. 

That’s why the incident with Love Wins isn’t only about sharing food with the hungry and homeless. It isn’t just about the larger war on the hungry and the poor being waged in city councils, state houses, and in the federal government. 

It isn't even about the criminalization of homeless people, their advocates, and friends. 

It is about the criminalization of Christ.

A former journalist, the Rev. David R. Henson is a minister (transitional deacon) in the Episcopal church and authors the blog Edges of Faith at Patheos. He is the father of two boys and the spouse of a medical student. Find him on Facebook or on Twitter @davidrhenson.This piece originally appeared at The God Article.

Image: Homeless man, Kuzma / Shutterstock.com

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