Is there a place for anger and outcry in the Works of Mercy?

Notes from my journey toward understanding the needs of the homeless, and the social services available in St. Louis, MO.

This weekend I took a spiritual retreat out of town to pray and read and renew with God. Now I want to take the time to answer Rev. Mike Kinman of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis on his three points regarding NLEC’s involvement in a protest that took place last Friday:

Here are his statements from his blog, Come Together:

1) The city’s closing of the encampments and relocating of the residents is a good thing. 

NLEC has always made clear that we support all those who want to take the city’s offer to get into housing. We are further under no illusions that somehow we will get the city to not close down the encampments because of our protest. We brought forward a robust, very nuanced appeal, wanting a discussion about a study done by the Continuum of Care itself. Rather than discussion, once again we face misunderstanding and the Mr. Seidhoff’s old line: “Larry Rice is on his own while every other agency in the city is on our side.”

2) Movements for change run off the rails when they treat potential allies as enemies. 

I agree with this. Was my making nearly every General meeting of the Continuum of Care from September of 2010 to 2011, and working to befriend so many hard working case managers all over the city in order to place people in housing the work of an enemy?

3) Well-conceived band-aid measures are necessary, but until we take a systems approach, urban poverty and homelessness will persist. 

I also agree with this, however I don’t call providing basic human necessities a band-aid, but part of the Corporal Works of Mercy, these include:

to feed the hungry,

to give drink to the thirsty,

to shelter the homeless,

to clothe the naked,

to visit prisoners,

to visit the sick,

and to bury the dead.

and when I do them for strangers I’m doing them for Jesus Christ. I don’t consider this half a solution, I consider it obedience to Christ. I don’t do it for cities or for systems, but for persons, in whom resides the imago dei. Now, for the systems approach, I hope you know that we are in agreement. It is a livable wage, a steady income, and safe affordable housing that ends homelessness.

I am constantly checking HUD’s federal data and the National Alliance to End Homelessness’s website to understand what’s taking place.

And this is why we believe it is duplicitous for the city of St. Louis to destroy affordable housing quietly, manage many properties through LRA that could be more easily made available, do away with SROs in downtown, and then at the same time claim to be ending homelessness.

I asked Mr. Seidhoff in a Continuum of Care meeting why the city did not release information as to how many units of affordable housing disappear annually. He called it a separate issue. I asked him about foreclosures and whether those numbers account for the newly homeless and he said emphatically, “They do not.” So to say that NLEC sides with band-aids and opposes a systems approach is obscuring the truth. I like to think that together (myself of NLEC and other members of the Executive Board of the CoC) we pressured the city to lift its 90 day residency restrictions on shelter for the homeless for the first time since the late 1980s. That happened in January of this year. The Chair of the CoC kept talking about doing it for a solid year. But you should notice that when the press got the word, officially it was the city’s idea all along.

I’ll say it again and again, NLEC wants the homeless in homes. But we also know from working daily with the people, doing case management is difficult work. Many people do not trust nursing homes, landlords, even hospitals, and so encouraging them to do the next right thing is part of the Spiritual works of mercy. These include:

to instruct the ignorant,

to counsel the doubtful,

to admonish sinners,

to bear wrongs patiently,

to forgive offenses willingly,

to comfort the afflicted,

and to pray for the living and the dead.

It is here, in the spiritual works of mercy that I locate our place for protest as a form of worship. Dorothy Day saw picketing with unions as “instructing the ignorant.” She said,

“These men, inarticulate men for the most part, because they are used to using their hands rather than their tongues, have all too few leaders and all too many critics. Christ was a worker, born by choice into their class, used to hardship and poverty. Because His feet walked where theirs have trod, because His hands also were broadened and soiled by tools and sweat, because we want to be close to Him, as close to Him in this life as we can possibly get, because through love of Him we love our brothers, we were at Bethlehem [KY] (so strangely named) this past week.”

Far from attempting to shame the city and the Continuum of Care, which is how this tends to be taken, we are pressing the city to consider all its citizens and all its practices. We fear that the city is using one service (the TIP program to place encampment residents) even as it continues to lose affordable housing in other places. By its very definition affordable housing allows someone to only have to spend 1/3 of their income on it, period. Across the nation millions of people are severely cost burdened with housing. It is harder and harder for so many to be able to afford housing in the long term.

The other thing that we oppose is a ban and future criminalization of encampments. Do we have a chance to keep the city from closing this property? No. But must we speak out that tent city models work across the nation? Yes, I will. I’ll go further and suggest that living in a tent city myself for a while to help it get started would not be out of the question for me.

If anything the encampments on Mullanphy have proven that encampment communities do not work when the leadership and outside support do not have the same ends in mind. Sadly, the things we want for people and the things they want for themselves aren’t always the same even when verbally agreed upon. We all knew that it was only a matter of time until the city moved to close the area. We cannot however agree that no good has come out of this experience or that everyone there as you suggest, “demeaned themselves and others,” by living there.

Now onto your other statements:

“The encampments are dangerous- a public health and safety hazard. People living outside in filth and subject to assault and robbery is neither safe nor dignified.”

Having spent considerable time at Hopeville, I have to agree or disagree depending on the day. I don’t think anyone needs to defend them or their history. They’ve been living in public for two years. Many different people have come and gone and have stories to share. You tell me how anyone can live sustainably without money and do it safe and healthy. A few of my friends on Facebook were there for it and they have good and bad memories to share. This is kind of like some neighborhoods in St. Louis I know. Should people only pick the nice neighborhoods to live in to make the city a better place?

“The people are not being evicted but are being relocated into safe housing.”

However you want to put it, the camps are being closed down. I’m not going to argue over the words “eviction, relocation, etc.” except to say that on May 4, OG, who did a video on youtube saying, “We will be carried off these fields in body bags, that’s what we vow” will actually be leaving the structures he built at Dignity Harbor and relocating elsewhere.

“In humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Phil. 2:3

OG put a lot of time and love into what he built, and to not get to know the man or his reasons is, to not humbly respect his work. He had the right to build it and spend three years nurturing it, and he has the right to accept the city’s offer and call it a day.

“Finally, we do need to provide band-aid measures that give compassionate care to those who are currently homeless. It’s why we have our Miss Carol’s Breakfast Program on Saturday mornings. It’s why we support The Bridge both financially and with volunteers for their Sunday lunch program. It’s why when City Director of Homeless Services Bill Siedhoff asked me yesterday if we would allow a portapotty to be put on the NE corner of 13th and Olive to try to alleviate the annual warm weather public health problem of outdoor urination and defecation (of which our own buildings are often a target), my answer was, “If you think it might help … absolutely.” But none of these things do anything to end homelessness.”

I can only reply as I have before that the Works of Mercy are not band-aids any more than worship is a waste of time this side of eternity, or that building the Kingdom of God is a meaningless struggle in the modern age where our leading minds believe in a closed universe. HUD is not advocating that emergency shelters disappear in place of Permanent Supportive Housing, but by the rhetoric used locally, many believe that there is no more need for shelter in the county or metro east. Permanent Supportive housing works with people who have been stabilized in shelters. I regularly get calls from case managers begging me to allow their client to stay longer in our shelter until their voucher kicks in. Our shelter is part of the solution. But, as you said, you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric.

You know that I spoke with you about the portapotty issue just the other day, asking how we might work together to, in your words, a systems theory, to deal with public safety and health issues in downtown. Regardless of how many meetings I go to with you or developers, it tends to come back to me that NLEC is the source of the health and safety problems in downtown.

Which leads me back to the hardest of the Works of Mercy for me to practice personally,

Bear wrongs patiently

Forgive offenses willingly

Sometimes all the “he said, she said” in this whole process of communication is more than I can take. I’m meeting new people all the time. I go to county and city and Metro East meetings. But mostly I meet with people every day who need comfort in their affliction. They don’t ask for it in so many words, but somehow I try to offer the assurance that they are heard and that yes I care, and Jesus Christ cares.

Working with the sojourning community (as Kathleen Wilder likes to call them) is teaching me that love and faithfulness are spiritual things that are hard won in the stuff of life. I don’t have the patience for this, but there is no easier softer way to love God and neighbor. I don’t have the patience, so I know where I need to go for it everyday.

I don’t consider you an enemy in this struggle Mike, but an important ally. I have no enemies in Jesus Christ. My dad suggested recently that maybe I could arrange him a lunch with Bill Seidhoff to bring them together. But despite what you may hear, I already know that Bill and Antoinette and the CoC are not our enemies. We are working together all the time off camera.

Now let me address the idea that we spread dissension toward the city, or slander potential allies. I believe that slander is a sin, as is misrepresentation. In Celebration of Discipline Richard J. Foster has a quote from Bernard of Clairveaux:

Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.”

He warns us that the spiteful tongue “strikes a deadly blow at charity in all who hear him speak and, so far as it can, destroys root and branch, not only in the immediate hearers but also in all others to whom the slander, flying from lip to lip, is afterwards repeated.” Guarding the reputation of others is a deep and lasting service.

Slander and gossip are some of the worst sins in community, whether in my church or in the larger city. In our frustration with the present realities of poverty, violence, sickness and fear it is so easy to be tempted to write each other off, spread lies about each other, or assassinate each other’s character. My father, myself, and all of our staff and volunteers are constantly called fools. “Larry Rice needs his head examined.” That sort of low blow comes with the territory. But I have never said, nor will I ever say, that my sojourning neighbors should become enemies of the city. God knows my heart, and he knows I often say things that get me into trouble. I need the very mercy I hold out to others.

I’ve included a recent photo tweeted from the city’s coc account at the top of this page. And here is the line above it:

“Bill Siedhoff (City, DHS) and Larry Rice (NLEC) agree that the solution to homelessness is housing! That’s a start!!!”

________________________________________

Update: May 1, 3/30pm

Mike Kinman replied on his blog:

Chris,

Thank you so much for taking the time for such a prayerful and thoughtful reply. I consider you a partner in ministry, a brother in Christ and a friend, so I am glad you responded and I am sure we will have much more of this conversation face-to-face.

At this point, it would easy for us to get into “dueling tomes” … and I don’t see much point in that … particularly because we agree on a great deal of what you are talking about. I just want to clarify some things I believe you either misunderstood or I didn’t express well enough, agree that there are some “agree to disagree” pieces here … and then point out one thing you wrote that does illustrate a significant difference.

First on the value of the encampments. I believe we will have to agree to disagree on this one. I’d love to continue that conversation face-to-face.

Second, when I talked about “band-aid” approaches, I think you took that as a pejorative, when I didn’t mean it that way. We need band-aids. Band aids are the binding of wounds and we need to do that lovingly and generously. They are loving works of mercy. But they are not sufficient alone — and I know you know this and you have said this. Band-aids do not prevent new wounds from occurring … and so a band-aid approach by itself is not enough. I did not presume you disagreed with this when I wrote it, nor did I mean to indicate I thought you were not interested nor working toward this. If that was inferred through my own unclarity, I apologize.

In terms of NLEC’s relationship with the City, you must know that the narrative that is played out publicly is that you are two oppositional forces. You wrote:
“Far from attempting to shame the city and the Continuum of Care, which is how this tends to be taken, we are pressing the city to consider all its citizens and all its practices.”
Regardless of your intent, you are right that this kind of action will be taken as an attempt to shame the City and CofC. It’s a cliche, but perception becomes reality. As I said in my piece, I believe both NLEC and the City (at least the people in the HOmeless Services Dept) are interested in ending homelessness. But as a relative newcomer to downtown, it feels like there is a Montague-Capulet thing going on here that neither one of you can get past. I haven’t walked the miles you all have walked together, but I can tell you it just seems intransigent and a huge barrier to getting anything done and protests just seem to make it worse and cement the oppositional narrative in people’s minds.

OK … I promised I wouldn’t do dueling tomes so I will stop now. I truly am grateful for your response … and any time I have a chance to re-ponder Dorothy Day and Bernard it is a good day. BLessings to you, my friend.

May 1, 2012 3:06 PM

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Filed under homelessness, humanity, NLEC, Pastoral Ministry

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