Our Homeless Neighbors

by Abigail Conley

The Point in Time homeless count happened this week. I was one of the volunteers who gathered before dawn at the fire station. We were offered coffee and doughnuts, watched a video, then were sent out into the city to search our assigned grid for homeless people and homeless camps. We carried bags with food and water, phone numbers, and socks to offer to the people we found. As we left, it was daylight, and the city was beginning to move about.

The homeless count happens each year across the country. It depends on the year if people are counted in shelters or on the streets or both. Most volunteers where I was were partnered with a city employee. I was glad my assigned staff person clearly knew what she was doing.

She drove around streets I knew existed but had never driven on. Our area was small, because homeless people are typically found there. We found fewer people than we anticipated, only one camp and one person sleeping in a park. As we drove, she told me the stories of homeless neighbors, some now housed, some still refusing, some still unknown. We drove past a woman’s home, housed for four years after nearly twenty on the streets. The city had figured out her housing and she’d been paying her own rent for a while now. I found out the name of the woman who is always at the bus stop at a particular intersection.

We made three stops. One was just a teenager, not homeless, but nervous at the adults approaching. We found a man in a park. In broken Spanish and broken English, we asked as many questions as we could. He thought he’d been homeless for about six weeks. By the time our conversation was over, we realized it had been more like six months. Who knows why exactly he had lost track of time. He pulled out the business card of a city employee from his wallet. We weren’t the first people to offer him help.

The most heartbreaking stop for me was behind a row of buildings, on a street that was little more than an alley. No one was home, but someone was staying there along the wall. It jutted back in one place, creating a small room with three walls. It was invisible until someone walked or drove along that dirt road. Two shopping carts were pushed inside, filled with belongings. Children’s items were the most visible. The clear indicator that someone as living there was the feces against the wall. There were several smudges that I would not have recognized unless the person in the car told me what they were; immediately, it made sense. Of course someone would back up to a wall to relieve himself; of course this is part of polite society that no one talks about. This sign wasn’t even in the training video.

My particular city has chosen not to criminalize homelessness. They’re hiring a homeless navigator; that person will be sent out to all these places to look for homeless people, to try and get them housed. They’ve been very supportive of the faith communities that provide emergency shelter for our homeless neighbors. A city in the same metro area instead chooses to pull people off the streets and drop them in a neighboring city; their belongings may or may not be kept by the officers who do this.

I wonder where the holiness in this story is, where the intersection with our faith is. Maybe it’s in the parable of the lost sheep, where there are 99 sheep in the fold, but the shepherd goes out looking for the one. Maybe it’s in Matthew 25 where Jesus commands us to offer food, drink, clothing, and welcome to people in need as if that person were Jesus himself. Maybe the holiness is in the Beatitudes, where Jesus proclaims,” Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Maybe it’s in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, where there are not poor in spirit nor people who hunger for righteousness. Instead, Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

Maybe the holiness is in an even more unexpected place, the list of questions we were given to ask people we found. What is your gender identity? Have you served in any branch of the military? Do you have a problem with drugs or alcohol? What is your HIV/AIDS status? It was amazing how impolite the questions were, especially to those of us who are comfortably housed. It was amazing how many points of vulnerability were enumerated on that one sheet.

Maybe you have a different answer to where the holiness in this story is. Whatever your answer is, you can likely enumerate ways that Christians have been called to care for vulnerable populations. If you’re not sure how, begin with seeing your invisible neighbors.