As thousands of tourists fawn each year over the opulent trappings of western North Carolina’s Biltmore Estates — a four football-field-sized homage to America’s Gilded Age — one of the starkest examples of the nation’s homeless problem endures less than a mile away.
Keiston Davis regained his life when he almost lost it. Davis was homeless and sleeping in his car in a parking lot of a Charlotte Walmart one night in January 2016 when a group of young men approached the car and ordered him to get out. He was shot in the face as he exited his car. The would-be robbers fled.
IT IS CRUEL TO PUNISH people for their poverty, but at every level of government, poor people are targeted for unfair treatment under the law. There is perhaps no clearer example of this than the growing criminalization of homelessness in the United States.
The criminalization of homelessness refers to a broad set of policies that punish people for having no indoor homes, such as local laws that prohibit sleeping, sitting, or lying down in outdoor public space. Since 2006, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (the Law Center) has tracked the explosive growth of these laws, including a 143 percent increase in those that outlaw living in vehicles. This is often the last refuge for poor families, the elderly, and disabled people who have been priced out of the rental market. Today, for example, half of the U.S. cities surveyed restrict sleeping and sheltering oneself outdoors, even when there are no alternative places to go.
Rather than address the root causes of homelessness, such as low wages that have not kept pace with rapidly rising rents, these policies merely punish people for living outside. Meanwhile, people who are sleeping in tents, lying down on sidewalks, and living in their vehicles are doing so because they are too poor to afford other housing. To jail, ticket, or threaten them for it only makes the problem worse.
People brought to jail for living in public often cannot afford cash bail, so they frequently accept criminal convictions to temporarily regain their freedom. They are then released back to the same streets, with the same lack of options, but with new fees and criminal records that make it even more difficult to get into housing and out of public space. This cycle is expensive and wastes community resources that would be better invested in permanent housing and other proven cost-effective solutions to homelessness.
“It's easy to catch a heat stroke from prolonged exposure to the sun and the humidity here in the district,” said Reginald Black, a homeless journalist and vendor for Street Sense, a local newspaper produced and distributed by homeless individuals.
I saw her in the month of mumps
puffed up in poverty’s robes,
a woman of fragments,
a shuffling quilt with running threads—
more holes, really, than skein.
You could read history in the headlines
she wore, partial untruths, incomplete
fictions. All of her lovers
failed to match the shoes she put on.
Every child she birthed missed having
national sunshine and two names.
She dodged taxes on her home;
it never had an address to speak of and
moved like wind-spinning, clanking aluminum cans
she chased for pennies.
Her boudoir looked like a butcher’s sleeve;
stolen ketchup packets from McDonald’s
provided ambergris for her perfume.
She was disqualified for any entitlements
except for open dumpsters on eyeless streets.
But mail always waited for her
no postage due; she was the patron
of the discarded; on winter nights the USPS
coated her from the leprous jaws of the wind.
She slept at the homes of three different zip codes
one January; always leaving at dawn’s early light;
she thought the flag needed to be washed.
Francis celebrated a Mass marking the Roman Catholic Church's first yearly World Day of the Poor, which the pope established to draw the attention of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to the neediest.
"Especially in this day and age, we already are living in tough times…I’ve seen people looking to things like film and television as a means of escape, so I have to acknowledge that people are spending their hard-earned money to go to a movie on a Friday night and want some sort of escape....My hope is that along with getting that escape, they will be positively motivated," says the filmmaker.
Everyone deserves our love, especially those whom the “religious” people deem unworthy — tax collectors, Samaritans, lepers, the homeless, the beggars, the sick, the mentally ill, the despairing.
For many Asian immigrants and refugees, coming to the United States wasn’t fully voluntary, but a result of war and poverty. Just as the Hebrews needed to learn to live as exiles, Asian Americans needed to find a way to make a new home in a new land. While their hardships reflect the difficulty of exile, Jimmy’s and Mary’s familial love and corporate responsibility also model for me how we Christians are to follow Jesus in the midst of this empire.
Some of my friends have been talking about giving up the “evangelical” label, because of what it has come to be associated with, in this year’s political campaign. I’m not ready to make that move. I spent a good part of the 1960s trying hard not to be an evangelical, but without success.
When I marched for civil rights during my graduate school years, I helped to organize “ban the bomb” marches and protested the Vietnam War. I was clearly out of step with much of the evangelicalism of the day.
“That’s why we really want to shift, and that’s our next goal if we can find a parcel,” said Fernandez, a member of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy. “The owner, along with some of the neighbors, would work with Interfaith to say: ‘This is a religious right to take care of our homeless people.’”
I was raised in Atlanta during the heyday of the civil rights era. I went to high school with some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children. And I didn’t know there was a racial problem in my city. Because for me and my people there wasn’t. It was somebody else’s problem. Across town. Somewhere else.
The black maids and gardeners rode a tidal wave into my white neighborhood each morning, tended babies, fried chicken, and manicured lawns. And then the tide washed them back out again. We didn’t often ask where they landed for the night and whether it was as sumptuous as our digs, or whether their neighborhoods were even safe. We just dropped our bath towels on the floor and figured that somebody would pick them up again in the morning. Life was good.
From the remove of 40 years and 600 miles, I see it differently. But it took more than time and distance to reckon with my own cluelessness about race. It took what it always takes for barriers to fall between “us” and “them” — getting to know some of “them.” I’ve gotten as far as being able to name that I am on one side of many different divides, including the dinner counter at the Mission, and I’m usually on the less-shitty side. And it’s through no merit of my own. In fact it’s where people like me, white and privileged, have long been and have little questioned.
The Francis Revolution is crossing the Atlantic and coming to the heart of the nation’s Capitol. News broke yesterday that Pope Francis has accepted Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a rare joint session of Congress during his upcoming trip to the United States on Sept. 24.
This is the first time that a pope has addressed Congress and provides a world-class opportunity for the Holy Father to lift up the Gospel’s social justice message to the most powerful legislative body in the world.
So what will the Jesuit from Argentina talk about? Studying his nearly two-year tenure as the Bishop of Rome suggests that Pope Francis will focus particularly on the scandal of inequality and exclusion.
Last April, Pope Francis tweeted that “inequality is the root of all social evil.” The seven-word tweet caused an uproar in American media, but the truth is that Francis had been saying the same thing for years. In his 2013 letter Joy of the Gospel, Francis wrote “just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”
With reports last fall suggesting that economic inequality in the United States is at its highest levels since the Great Depression, Pope Francis will likely call on our elected leaders to transform our economy into one where no one is left behind.
James was playing cards with several other nursing home residents in a room that doubles as their dining area. The “stakes” for their game was a stash of candy from a Christmas party earlier in the day. He saw me and waved me over. James grabbed one of the candy canes in his pile and offered it with his right hand, the one that had L-O-V-E spelled out on the backs of his four fingers with a self-applied tattoo.
“Would you like some candy?” he said.
James was short, thin, in his 40s. His most distinctive features were those homemade tattoos on his fingers, hands and forearms. And the outline of a metal plate protruding from his lower right leg.
An auto accident left the leg mangled. He didn’t have medical insurance to cover the enormous hospital bills. He couldn’t stand on the leg as it healed, so he lost his job as a cook. And soon, his apartment. He was living on the streets, sharing needles and drugs to deaden the pain in his leg. He wound up sharing someone’s AIDS as well.
But that’s not why he was dying. He’d developed cancer. There was nothing they could do.
I got to know James as part of my work as a hospice volunteer. He only slowly warmed to me — all that time on the streets made him wary of people and their motives. He didn‘t trust very much.
But now he was offering me a candy cane.
WHEN SHE’S TRAVELING around her north-central Detroit neighborhood, Lucretia Gaulden likes to carry her digital camera with her.
The 39-year-old lifelong Detroiter trains her lens at scenes that represent health—such as an outgoing person she admires, for example—as well as images that represent sickness and danger, such as vacant buildings.
That’s the assignment she’s working on in her photography class at the Bell Building. Until Lucretia came to the Bell Building 17 months ago, she never had a chance to participate in a photography class. When she was homeless, attending a weekly class of any type, even owning a camera, might have been out of reach.
Orphaned at 13, pregnant at 16, she found herself in prison at 25 after being convicted of being an accomplice to a crime committed by an old boyfriend. When she got out, she bounced between halfway houses and friends’ couches.
But since she’s arrived at the Bell Building, she’s been able to focus on what’s more healthy for her. In compliance with her lease, Lucretia pays rent every month on her own furnished one-bedroom apartment. She serves as a floor captain, with responsibilities for maintaining order and community among her immediate neighbors. She’s also part of the building’s Tenants Advisory Council and is a member of the speakers bureau, a group of residents who do public presentations and speak with the press. Their work is meant to help put a human face on the issue of homelessness.
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MY 5-YEAR-OLD daughter, Zoe, is in preschool. This means, as most parents of school-age children know, that there is a birthday party to attend approximately every other weekend of the year.
On the way to one of these myriad celebrations, we stopped by the church in downtown Portland, Ore., where my wife, Amy, is the senior pastor. She had a daylong meeting, and we needed to switch cars, as hers was the one with the gift in it.
As we came down the front steps of the church and onto the South Park Blocks, a local city park, we saw at least half a dozen emergency vehicles parked in a haphazard formation along the street and on the sidewalk in front of a small public restroom. Several officers were standing together, making calls on their radios and discussing the situation at hand. At their feet was what appeared to be a lifeless body, lying on the pavement underneath a blue tarp.
“Daddy,” Zoe said, “what are those police mans doing in the park?”
“I’m not sure, honey,” I said, “but it looks like somebody needed their help.”
“Is somebody in trouble?”
“Something like that,” I sighed. “Make sure you don’t drag that gift bag on the ground. We don’t want to mess up your friend’s present before we get to the party.”
My first thought was, God, please don’t let it be Michael. Michael is a man about my age who lives outside and wrestles daily with an addiction to alcohol, among several other things. We have helped him get sober, only to see him relapse. We helped him get into supportive housing, only to watch him get into a fight and get thrown back out onto the street.
“She wakes to the sound of breathing. The smaller children lie tangled beside her, their chests rising and falling under winter coats and wool blankets.”
So begins the New York Times story following Dasani, an 11-year-old girl living homeless in New York. Dasani lives with her parents and seven siblings in a family residence shelter. From school to dance class to home, Dasani feels the weight of poverty and an unstable family.
According to the story, one in five children in America live in poverty, “giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.”
In this five-part multimedia story, life told through Dasani’s eyes offers an honest look at homelessness and the pursuit for a hopeful future.
Read the full story here.
“Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.”
- Dorothy Day
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Catholic Worker Movement — best known for its hospitality houses that dot the nation, bringing together communities of individuals in need and offering them housing and love.
It was in that vein that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and his wife, Leah, began Rutba House in Durham, N.C., after experiencing what he calls the “Good Samaritan story:” While the couple were on a peacemaking trip in Rutba, Iraq in 2003, friends were injured in a car accident, and local physicians gracefully cared for them.
Jonathan and Leah returned to the states looking for a way to extend the same type of love and welcome they received in Iraq. Ten years later, Rutba House holds countless stories of transformation through community, which Jonathan recounts in his book Strangers at My Door: An Experiment in Radical Hospitality, out Nov. 5.
Upon first glance, the arc of the narrative does seem radical. The hospitality house welcomes strangers in to live as part of the community — even at midnight, even when they might not pass society’s presentability test, even when the host is tired, even when they come straight from prison.
“I think part of what I’ve learned over the past 10 years — what Jesus is revealing to us through this call to greet him in the stranger — is something basic about who we are and who we’re made to be,” Wilson-Hartgrove told Sojourners. “All of us are called to hospitality — not just as Christians, as human beings. Because humans can’t live alone.”
There is no longer a war on poverty.
There is a war on the hungry.
There is a war on the poor.
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.