Saturday, June 10, 2006

Hospitality for the Poor

May 1, 2006:

The last week has brought for me a new discovery: It hurts to be unwanted.

Let me offer a little background. We at Bread & Roses are opening a new House of Hospitality at the old Yoga Center building on 4th Avenue. The move represents the fulfillment of a long term dream – to return to our old way of life as Catholic Workers, and to create a more home-centered environment for our Advocacy Center.

The new house on 4th will, first and foremost, be a home for myself and Meta, my wife. Secondly, we will be hosting the Bread & Roses Advocacy Center in the new house. We believe that moving the Advocacy Center (previously located in a storefront office at the corner of State and Washington) into a home will be tremendously advantageous to the program. The atmosphere offered by a warm, vibrant, comfortable home will dramatically affect the dynamic of our work, creating a more informal, far more personal environment in which to serve our guests.

Imagine – rather than walking into an office, signing in, and meeting with an advocate at a desk – walking across a welcome mat into a friend’s home, offered a cup of coffee, and asked how your day was. This is the experience we want each person to have as they come to our door seeking help with navigating the social service system.

As we have been moving during the last week, though, the dream of the new home has been tempered by the reality of the fear, prejudice, and even hatred held by our larger society toward the poor.

One of the new neighbors told me that he wished the landlord hadn’t rented to us. Many of the neighboring businesses, while really wanting to support us, expressed fear that our guests would drive away their customers. A front page article was printed in the Olympian that focused rather narrowly on the “not-in-my-back-yard” issues that plague Bread & Roses. One of our former neighbors was quoted as saying that he was “ecstatic” that we were moving away from his business.

While this all is very understandable and ought to be expected, it has certainly been an unpleasant experience and has affected the excitement that Meta and I have felt about our new home. It also, in the most powerful way that I have experienced, hit me with the day to day reality for my friends on the streets. Our society simply doesn’t want them. By proxy, they don’t want me as their neighbor either.

Two days ago I read the readers’ comments posted on the Olympian’s website in response to the article about our move. The following statements are taken directly from those website postings:

“Kick them to the curb and make them leave downtown. All they do is bother people. Lock them up and throw away the key - these people are USELESS!”

“…you would be a fool to let your children anywhere near them… …These people can’t make decisions for themselves and it is about time the public made them comply with the law.”

“We have a lot of homeless because they migrate here like birds looking for food! …If you feed the pigeons more will come!”

“As far as mental illness goes they don’t have a problem remembering to ask everyone for change as they walk by and what time ‘Din, Din’ is down at good ol’ Bread and Roses. I think the only mental illness most of these people have is called ‘lazyitis’.”

“I’d say the move is a step in the right direction. If we can keep them moving closer and closer to Tacoma, it won’t be long before they are IN Tacoma. Now that would be great.”

“Homeless people are worthless trash! Take them out behind the barn! Now that is problem solving at its best!”

“The VAST MAJORITY of these bums (homeless) choose to be that way. …They choose their lifestyle of being drunk and/or high wanting free hand outs and most likely will NEVER be productive citizens within this or any other community.”

“I too work with these people everyday and almost all of them are complete dregs on society. You people are enablers who allow this type of behavior to continue with no end in sight.”

“I’m sure this news is going to make 4th Dimension Computers very happy-- NOT!!!! Just what they want-- bums hanging around harassing their customers, and maybe even breaking into their building and stealing things. …Phil Owen better do something constructive about riding hard on his clients. How about paying for a police presence to make sure the clients aren’t breaking the laws?”

“You don’t continue to move a problem around, you ELIMINATE it… …Get rid of B&R and then we’ll get rid of the creepy homeless panhandlers downtown who freak normal people out.”

“…invite some of these people into your home, where they will piss on your carpet because it is too much trouble to walk to the bathroom, will leave their needles for your children to find, and will take everything you don’t have bolted down before they walk out the front door, all the while calling you filthy names.”

“If you let them fend for themselves the problem will fix itself, the ones who are hopelessly addicted will just spend their money on their drugs and die from malnutrition.”

“Its ok to hate bad people.”

“Shame them, humiliate them, Make them beg for crumbs. Put them in jail.”

“I wish it were legal to hunt the homeless.”

This kind of hatred speaks for itself; I don’t think I need to elaborate much to create a picture of the kind of bigotry that homeless people face each day.

When I was seventeen and just beginning to recover from homelessness myself, there was a woman who, together with her reluctant husband, opened her home to the youth of the Bald Hills. Not all the youth of the area gathered at her home, but it was a haven in particular to the rabble and hoodlums. These were the kids who were breaking into houses and prowling cars in the neighborhood – the potheads and meth-heads, the runaways, and the rascals. Rizae didn’t institute a program or create an organization; she just offered what little she had for a safe and friendly place for us kids to hang out. I rented a place on her couch for $100 per month, and brought my own food (two packets of ramen per day). From time to time she’d sneak me some macaroni with hotdogs.

I think most people would be terrified to do what Rizae did. Why, the kids would tear our home to pieces. What if they sell drugs? What if the neighbors complain? The impressive thing is that all these juvenile delinquents turned into angels when they were at her place. They were kind to one another (a miracle in itself), respectful of Rizae and her husband, and were unstoppable dishwashers. Rizae did nothing more to encourage this transformation than to be friendly, personable, and welcoming, yet soon the joke among the kids was that she was the neighborhood “mom”.

This is what a House of Hospitality looks like. A House of Hospitality is a place where it is easier for people to be good. It is a place where people can become healthy. Its strength rests on people like Rizae, people who have a burning drive to live in community with others, and who see the good in others and desperately want them to see it in themselves. Each and every person who took me in when I was a homeless teenager was operating a House of Hospitality. And now Meta and I have the opportunity to operate a House of Hospitality ourselves.

Meta and I want to welcome the homeless into our home because the homeless aren’t welcome anywhere else. We want to welcome the homeless into our home because everyone should feel wanted. We want to welcome them into our home because we know them, and care about them, and because we have a fundamental belief that it is possible for people to be close to one another even in the face of challenging circumstances. The homeless are persecuted, reviled, hated, and abused, much as Christ was in his time on the earth. Nonetheless, we believe that it is possible to overcome these challenges and create a little piece of the “Blessed Community” here in our home.

For Christians this time of year is Resurrection season. It is time for our community to put down the bloody nails of hatred, and to step into the light and beauty of the Resurrected life of love. Please, come and visit us in our new home. Come share a cup of coffee and a little conversation with our guests. You will be surprised and delighted with the result.

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