Sunday, June 11, 2006

Lazarus at the Gate

I did something this week for which I become deeply angry when others do the same. I cleared the brush in my back yard to prevent homeless people from camping there.

My wife and I live in the new Bread & Roses house on 4th Ave. This house is open to the street community about 45 hours per week. Volunteer advocates gather at our home to help homeless individuals to gain access to services such as drug treatment, disability benefits, and housing. We offer a beautiful, home-centered atmosphere in which this work can take place. But unfortunately we are renters.

When we first moved in, our landlord was excited to be able to support Bread & Roses, but nervous about how we would work out as renters. Our neighbors, who rent from the same landlord as us, were very nervous about our presence.

Neither the landlord nor the neighbors are bad people. In fact, the landlord recently sat for lunch with me and a good friend of mine who lives with serious schizophrenia. The two of them got along fabulously. If this friend of mine were to camp in my back yard, though, it would cause a problem. It could scare off the neighbor’s customers.

And there has been a problem. There have been at least one or two people camping in the back yard each night for the last couple of weeks. The neighbors have commented to us on the situation a few times now. I have gone out each night at odd hours to, in the kindest fashion I could muster, ask them to leave. And finally a few days ago I cleared out the brush to eliminate discreet places for people to sleep.

As I cleared brush, I meditated on how screwed up this situation is. Homeless people need to sleep more than other people need to use credit unions. They need to sleep more than other people need to practice yoga, or get haircuts, or buy office supplies. And the truth is that sleeping homeless people do nothing to prevent people from practicing yoga or stopping in at the credit union. It is the fear of homeless people that stops them.

Sleep is not a choice. It is not a privilege, nor a luxury. It is a necessity. People have to sleep somewhere. There are more than 1200 homeless people in Thurston County (census numbers: ca 600, additional numbers sent from Thurston Co. Schools: over 600), and less than 200 shelter beds. This spells a lot of people sleeping in public spaces, where they are vulnerable to police harassment, or sleeping on private property and breaking the law. There is simply no place for them.

As I worked, I thought about the scriptural story of Lazarus at the gate of the Rich Man. I thought about Matthew 25, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto Me.” I thought of Jesus violating the laws and customs of his day to help the Canaanite woman. I recited the Magificat to myself and meditated on the Beatitudes. My faith, my politics, my worldview, and my commitment to others stand in direct opposition to the actions I was taking.

I hate our system. I hate it because it forces us to choose between evils. Because I either have to forbid camping in my yard or get shut down, to commit an injustice now or face a greater injustice later. What do I do?

"Nature produced common property. Robbery made private property." -St. Ambrose


Anonymous said...

I'm being forced to build a 6 foot high fence and cut down the hedges in the front yard due to street camping. Something about an attractive nusance and sanitation. The men camping are chronicly feral so no shelter will take them. I could just randomly turn on the sprinkers like the city and the local businesses do, but that seem just mean spirited.

Phil said...

Sucks, doesn't it. If you talk with the campers, they'll probably be pretty understanding. Good luck.

Currently Reading:

  • Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America - Todd Depastino

Recently Finished Reading:

  • Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
  • Utopia of Usurers - GK Chesterton
  • Orthodoxy - GK Chesterton