I think about homelessness every day. Living in a major metropolitan area on the West Coast, it comes with the territory, and I know that some of my neighbors, some of my fellow Portlanders, will sleep tonight under a tarp on a sidewalk, in the doorway of a business, under a bridge, on an acquaintance’s couch, in an emergency shelter.
I’m pretty furious about the whole thing, that somehow as a society we think it’s acceptable for people to live this way, that it’s okay for children and people who should be living off their Social Security to instead be utterly dependent on the kindness and generosity of strangers. It’s more complicated than that, I know, but at the heart of things, I think there’s a lack of compassion and an overabundance of greed and apathy.
So yesterday I had coffee with my friend who is a social worker who gives a lot of his time, in his work and as a volunteer, to work with people living on the streets. For the last six months, our congregation has hosted one family at a time living in their car in our parking lot. Catholic Charities provides a porta-potty. A nearby house offers their shower. We’ve helped with food and meals and bus fare and laundry.
My friend listened well to me as I struggled with trying to figure out what is the right thing to do, for our guests in the parking lot and for the general crisis of homelessness in our city. In the end, what I heard him say is something like, “You can’t help everyone. Not everyone wants help. But you can help some people. Set your boundaries, know your capabilities and your limits, and try.”
The program funding these porta-potties in parking lots is coming to an end – budget cuts. When I inquired why, the head of the agency providing the funding told me about the money part, and asked why more congregations hadn’t participated in the program. I told him I thought it was because of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and the power of neighborhood associations to put the kibosh on this sort of thing. And of course it’s more complicated and nuanced than that.
Then last night a homeless couple started unloading their eight shopping cards on the parking strip at my neighbors’ house.
We had already planned a happy hour get together at these neighbors’, so of course What To Do about this couple became the main topic of conversation. Folks had noticed them earlier in the day. They were the people who had camped out by the library for two weeks. They said they just needed to get their car fixed. Ah, I thought – we can help with that.
So my husband and I went to talk with the woman. We introduced ourselves. I said I’d heard they needed help getting their car fixed. No, she said, getting her cart fixed. Oh, I said. Can we loan you some tools? No, she said. I noticed she was gathering trash, and I offered to put it in our trash can. Thanks, she said. And that was it.
Over the course of the next few hours many noticed this couple. One neighbor wanted to call 911 and throw them out. Another wanted to find shelter services. Others wanted to let them be.
This morning they moved down a house, to the parking strip of a house whose owners live elsewhere. One neighbor called non-emergency and was told that unless they were engaging in illegal activity, there was nothing the police could do. Yet another neighbor asked if we couldn’t engage with them. All agreed we wanted to help. All agreed we didn’t want them in our neighborhood.
And then my hypocrisy hit me. Yes, I want to help them, but not in my own backyard.
I don’t know how this will resolve and I don’t know what to do. I know that all of us are beloved children of God, human beings who deserve respect and dignity. After that, we differ. Some of us have a lot – a home, a car, storage space, places to get clean, family, neighbors, jobs, community. Some of us none of those things.
“You can’t help everyone. Not everyone wants help. But you can help some people. Set your boundaries, know your capabilities and your limits, and try.”
Is that enough?