Houseless peoples camps are being raided. And it is not right to do it. Police officers, attempting to force houseless people into shelters, are forcing these people to discard sleeping bags and tents. It is wrong to do this too. Local new media does not speak about it. That is wrong too. People without their tents and sleeping bags are freezing to death. That is an abomination before God. City officials engaged in such activities are practicing evil. But let’s consider the reasons given.
Homeless or Houseless?
The word houseless is now used to describe people who have no permanent residence. We used to say “homeless.” But the word home implies connections to other people. Having housing or not having it is a state of economic status. For Christians this is a frightening state of affairs. It brings to mind the response Jesus had to a would-be disciple. “A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.'” (Matthew 8:20-21)
My roles as a pastor and as part of the Recovery Community have put me in contact with houseless people. I once intervened with some cops for a woman sleeping in a local park. The police were adamant that she could not stay. I took her to my home where she shared a meal with my family. I then drove her where she wanted to go to begin hitching a ride to North Carolina. Other times I have found people sleeping outside AA clubhouses. Houseless addicts participate in recovery meetings just like other addicts. They are people wanting to remain sober and not looking for someone to enable them. And yet, the commonly held image of the houseless is that of people in active addiction or severely mentally ill. But, if all houseless people fit this image. what should the response of local governments be?
The Center for Disease Control released guidelines in August 2020 about this response. Encampments of houseless people are less likely to spread COVID-19 than shelters filled with houseless people. The guidance is for them to be left alone. The CDC acknowledges the potential trade-off with other problems associated with houseless camps. Staying outside is safer. So why then do cities like Knoxville Tennessee continue trying to force houseless people indoors? Being indoors does nothing for the mental health issues with which most houseless people struggle. Wouldn’t it be more emotionally taxing for a police officer to force someone to throw away something essential for life?
Imagine being freely given a tent or a sleeping bag for your survival only to have it taken away by a uniformed city official? (Is that even constitutional?) What level would your anxiety be? If you were struggling with addiction, would you be tempted to drink or use? I know I would.
Try this on for size: Suppose you found Jesus and the Apostles sleeping outside. What would you do? My point is, given what we know from the Gospels, it would have happened. It can be argued that it was common for that to happen in their day. Well, it is common in our day too. The problem is we think being houseless is an aberration. It is not. The aberration is expecting people to have housing.
Being Houseless As A Fault
Is being houseless a criminal state? It isn’t. We have two factors at work in our society. The first is we have some holdover Victorianism that equates poverty with criminality and sin. The second is making cops and teachers address all social ills. The result is the school to prison pipeline. And once a person is released from prison where should that person go? Half-way houses? After that where? What jobs are available? Will the wages be enough to afford housing and other necessities of life?
What will happen when evictions restart after the COVID-19 moratorium ends in each state? Let’s ask some serious questions of our elected officials and local media. Can a city council member name, with out looking them up, the programs for the houseless? When was the last time they visited any of them? Maybe that should be a qualification for re-election.
I would rather houseless people be left alone. City governments can make housing more affordable. Living wages can be set. And treating people for mental health problems is possible. But it takes commitment. It takes compassion. It takes acknowledging reality. But, city governments are more concerned with giving public land and buildings away, building sports stadiums, and “revitalizing.” Priorities are the problem. If you won’t help, don’t persecute. Stop it.