I just want to share a few thoughts after an ecumenical service I attended on Tuesday night here in St. Louis that honored the memory of homeless friends and neighbors who died in 2010. I was invited to attend by another outreach worker here in the downtown area. I’ll begin by reminding you that I’m a pastor at New Life Evangelistic Center and not a social worker or outreach worker by profession. Much of my work everyday is similar in nature to what other social workers and outreach workers do. I’m constantly trying to connect many of the people I meet everyday to the other services available in the area. There are many shelters, drop in centers, clinics, and churches in the area serving the same people. So in this memorial service we heard special songs and prayers to remember the thirty six people known to have died, and as their names were read aloud members of area agencies stood in their behalf. The mayor of the city was present and spoke on the city’s commitment to end homelessness. The color guard presented flags for homeless veterans and led in the pledge of allegiance. Ministers from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths shared words of wisdom and hope. It was really beautiful. But as with many religious services I attend I left with very mixed feelings. “Earnie,” the homeless man I sat beside for the service, slept through most of it. With every word of encouragement I kept looking over at his face, chin buried in his chest. Due to his very serious medical condition, I know that death on the streets is a very present reality for him. I connected him recently with a local social worker who is working to get him into an apartment as soon as possible. After offering him the help and his willingness to receive it, the waiting process becomes even more unbearable.
In the closing benediction we were reminded to work harder to end homelessness. The mayor offered gratitude and adoration for everyone’s efforts, saying as he often does that St. Louis is a model for the nation in excellent homeless service provision, and that half the people we serve are not even city residents. Why do such statistics rankle me so? Why am I so bothered by the city’s pride in its services? Because so much of it is nothing if not false advertising. The city does not itself directly fund any shelters for the homeless with city money. The city uses federal money, 11 million dollars a year, and collects 2.5% of that to manage contracts and do referrals. It is committed to keeping homeless shelters out of downtown St. Louis. It believes in drop-in centers where homeless people can hang out during the day, shower and eat. They can park their cars in the area and live in them. They can pitch tents down on the river and the city pays for portable toilets there. But homeless shelters bring down property values.
Some other things don’t make any sense to me. If I lose my home (say through foreclosure) in St. Louis county and no longer reside there, how am I still a St. Louis county resident? So if I come to St. Louis and get an ID with a local church’s address on it and stay on the streets for 90 days then I’m finally capable of beginning the process of getting an apartment? I can’t help but feel that St. Louis wants to end homelessness by denying many people services until they either leave town or die. That may sound harsh, but when I have friends who are constantly denied the very things on paper they should qualify for, I get mad. When I bring these things up to other agencies that receive federal and state grants I’m told that I shouldn’t focus on the few who fall through the cracks. “Yes, the system isn’t perfect. But our client’s testimonies prove that we’re making a difference.”
I don’t deny that these agencies are making a difference, I just don’t see a clear line between homelessness and the ongoing issues of poverty, so I don’t see how homelessness can possibly be ended on the government’s timeline. I know many people who are no longer homeless thanks to HPRP (Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing) but neither do they have furniture or even blankets. They still show up for sandwiches and meals at all the same places where they’ve frequented for years when homeless. Some make just enough from disability to keep the apartment, but one extended stay in the hospital or one wrong move and they’ll be right back on the streets. I know a man in our transitional housing program who when asked about getting an apartment through HPRP admitted that he’d been placed through it within the last few months and had already returned to the streets. He got laid off that great paying job that was gonna keep him from being homeless.
The campaign to end homelessness by 2015 is a wonderful ideal. I’m thankful that St. Louis is more humane than many cities. But campaigns want something tangible to be proud of. By their very nature they want to see success and turn a blind eye to anything else. They want success stories that look good in a glossy portfolio. Who doesn’t? But why does all that rankle me? Because I don’t see people as either successes or failures. I just want to love people with the love of Christ. I don’t care whether they’re St. Louis citizens or not, disabled or fit, mentally ill or addicted to a substance. They all need the grace of God. The love of Christ cannot be quantified, subsidized, and issued proportionate to populations. For some reason God didn’t ask whether we deserved it before He emptied himself and became human as we are. I figure the people I spend time with are the ones He sends my way. Do they all get better? God knows. Everyone is different. I’m not here to shelter the homeless or refer the homeless. I’m here to just be a vessel of Christ’s love. I’m a cracked vessel. Used only because God sees fit. Praying and worshiping and lifting and standing and climbing stairs with folks who come homeless and poor but in time learn that we’re all simply grace-filled servants.