As I think about the homelessness, I wrongly get the image of a smelly, grimy drunk bum on a park bench. I am not alone in getting this initial image in my mind. We all fall prey to implicit bias in many realms. Are there some that fit this stereotype? Yes, and I have seen some of them. Other homeless that I have experienced are either mentally disabled or under educated and just don’t know how to get out of their situation. I have also met some people who just plain lack the motivation to hold down a job and fend for themselves with the assistance that is available.
I was talking with a friend of mine who was homeless and lived in the local shelters for a period of time. He expressed they do not provide services in-house to help people. They do not computers for them to search online for jobs, affordable housing, etc.. The little help they do give is, in my friend’s opinion, “useless”. They do not allow the people to stay in during the day, even when they are ill or there is bad weather. These two things lead many of them to congregate around the public library and the local transit center. Many do utilize the computers at the library but stay on them so long that other patrons have to wait for hours to get on them. Why are these services not being provided by the shelters? I, nor my friend, have a clue to the answer.
The “system” is like a revolving door. Someone comes into the shelter and basically give up many of their rights. This leads to them creating trouble and being kicked out. They go to another shelter, same thing happens. They are on the streets for a few months and go back to the first shelter and it starts all over again. I give as an example of the harshness of the shelter rules my friend’s story. During his time in the shelter he obeyed the rules, did not “rock the boat” was a “good boy”, his father was nearing the end of his life and my friend wanted to be with his dad when he passed. The case worker at the shelter told him that if he went, he would be kicked out. Thus, he was unable to say god bye to his dad. He got the same answer when he asked to be able to go to his dad’s funeral out of town (entailing an overnight stay). He received the same non-caring, callous response.
This is inhumane!! These caseworkers are supposed to be helping the residents of the shelter, not making a bad situation worse by denying them their dignity and humanity. In many cases it is just this sort of treatment that causes the residents to get into trouble. My friend was telling me about a couple people who purposely started fighting (against the rules) so bad that the police were called. Ultimately these guys were sentence to jail which is just what they wanted. Oh, by the way it was winter (one of the coldest in years), and they did not want to be outside in it. It is sad that jail is preferable to the shelter. In jail the get three squares, a bed, don’t have to go outside, and here’s the real kicker, they have more privacy in jail.
We definitely need to work to reform the “system” so that they are more humane, empathetic and kind. Just how to do this is complicated. There are groups in my area that are working to address these issues. Yes, I am involved in this. I feel a type of kinship with the homeless, as I myself found my self in that situation for about a year. I was fortunate though. I di not have to use the shelter system as I, thank God, have many friends who came to my aid and let me crash on their couch for a night or two. One friend (the one mentioned in this essay), let me stay with him for nine months until I found my current apartment.
We, as clergy, need to help where we can. I salute the major support that my brothers and sisters in Christ do at St. Miriam’s. You are an inspiration to me and are truly blessed!! The interfaith group here in Oshkosh, WI are in the planning stages of a similar project as well as working to improve conditions at the various shelters in the area. With God’s help and the Holy Spirit, this work will be a tremendous success.