The second column in my five-week series on homelessness was published yesterday on the religion-oriented site Spokane Faith and Values, where I have been writing throughout the pandemic. Below is a verbatim transcript of the piece.
I recently raised a public objection to the notion that I ought to change my phraseology from “homeless” to “houseless” in everything I write. I felt a bit miffed that the person who made this suggestion had never actually lived outdoors.
But I am someone who has lived outdoors — not just for a while, but for years on end. During those years, I associated largely with others who were in the same boat. I learned how such people generally speak of themselves. As a result, I use the words “outside” and “outdoors” more than either of the other two–and I feel compelled to explain why.
In a way, I have the same motive as those who wish to replace “homeless” with “houseless.” The word “homeless” has a lot of pejorative connotations. But both of these words end with “less.” They still suggest that the person who lives outdoors is necessarily lacking something. But this is not always the case.
In my case, after struggling in and out of untenable living situations in the San Francisco Bay Area for seven years, I made a conscious choice on April 15, 2011 to join an intentional homeless community. While most of us had experienced a crisis that led to a loss of residence, we unanimously believed that to live outdoors was the lesser of evils. For one thing, we found it preferable to live outside rather than to pay exorbitant rental fees for acceptable living situations (not to mention paying decent rent for unacceptable situations).
In short, we had a heck of a time finding living situations in the Bay Area that were both affordable and acceptable. So for the time being, we were content to stay outdoors.
It was there that I found the language most prevalent among all who shared my predicament. This was a simple exchange between the words “inside” and “outside.” If someone had a roof over their head, we said they were “inside.” If they didn’t, they were “outside.” This is how homeless people speak of themselves in the Bay Area. It’s also how they speak of themselves in Moscow, Idaho. And while I have never been homeless in Spokane, I wouldn’t doubt that this parlance is common there as well.
Is there a reason for this linguistic preference? I think there is. It speaks to the essential difference between two disparate camps. Some people have roofs over their heads, and some people don’t. Furthermore, there is nothing morally wrong with sleeping outside — so long as one is not sleeping on someone else’s property. The landmark decision in Martin v. Boise would seem to support this.
This leads nicely into the second of the seven inequities I have wanted to discuss.
A Homeless Person Does Have a Life
It was often assumed that, because we had wound up homeless, all of the conclusions we had drawn throughout our entire life span were in need of revision.
This led to an amusing observation. If a person had been a lifelong conservative, and they became homeless, that person was supposed to “become a liberal.” Why? Because the liberal social workers were feeding them.
If a person had been a liberal all their lives, and they became homeless, they were often told that they should “become a conservative.” Why? Because the Salvation Army was feeding them.
How many people in those days approached me in order to proselytize their particular version of Christianity? Very many. How many people asked me first if I already knew Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior? Very few.
This imbalance appears to have evolved from some of the preconceptions I discussed last week. It was rarely considered that someone might have become homeless due to a lack of tenable housing. It was almost universally assumed that they became homeless because there was something wrong with them.
Homelessness is Not a Disease
In the rooms of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, there are many “clichés” or sayings intended to assist people who have hit huge “bottoms” in their lives. One of these is: “Your best thinking got you here.” That statement is then followed by suggestions as to how the recovering addict or alcoholic might change their way of thinking, in accordance with the 12 steps.
I can understand how this would apply to the enormous losses one might incur through drug addiction or alcoholism. People do “drink themselves out of house and home.” Many people with drug problems wind up alienating friends and family, as well as landlords. Many do wind up outdoors. This cannot be denied.
But here I found myself having consciously chosen homelessness as the lesser of evils in a precarious life-situation that had yet to be resolved. Numerous people approached me saying, in effect:”Your best thinking got you into this position. I have suggestions how you might change your way of thinking.”
I felt like saying: “I agree that my best thinking got me into this position. But you have never been in this position; therefore you cannot advise me as to how to get out of it.”
This is how the details of homelessness differ radically from the details of drug addiction or alcoholism. The A.A. member who makes that suggestion is a recovering alcoholic and does have valuable information to share. But the person who, having always living indoors, makes such a suggestion to a homeless person, has no relevant personal experience. Therefore their suggestions, however well-intended, are not often useful.
This disparity — or inequity or imbalance — is something that can be solved through better communication. But before we can even begin to make that effort, we need to dignify, not only the homeless human being, but the homeless experience itself.
In short, there is nothing wrong with being homeless.
We need to understand this simple truth, and to have it acknowledged far and wide. Look how many people are on the streets! Despite the best efforts of all involved, that number is only bound to increase — especially now, when more people than ever are losing their homes.
We need to stop moralizing, and start accepting. We need to stop obligating people who sleep outside toward quick entries into undignified indoor living situations. Homelessness is neither a crime nor a disease. We need to stop criminalizing the homeless, and we need to stop treating them as though they are sick.
If we cannot truly help them to get inside, let us please make it easier for them to live outdoors.
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6 thoughts on “A Homeless Person Has a Life”
“We need to stop moralizing, and start accepting.” – Yes, yes, yes. Whether someone is homeless, houseless, or outside, there is a social difference from people who are (non-precariously) housed and inside. The way society chooses to treat that difference is not inevitable. Moralization doesn’t have to happen. People don’t need to be written off because they’re outside rather than inside. Society has made these choices, and change can only begin with individuals.
(Posted this same comment on Disqus as well.)
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Agreed on all counts, Ashley. Also am following you on Disqus now.
When I first got into the ministry, I went to the jails and prisons. For years there a subtle, but profound idea took over quietly and under realized. We began measuring the success of our ministry by the recidivism rate.
Does Jesus ever do that?
Jesus (and Paul) have a lot to say about ministry to those locked up, but they never measure the value of their work by the recidivism. In fact, Jesus gets arrested (though not locked up, he goes straight to a death sentence) and Paul and other missionaries get locked up repeatedly. In fact, if we really just listened to the Bible, we would see that witnessing for Jesus very likely will get you locked up.
This gets a little complicated by the fact that SIN also gets people locked up. But again, that isn’t a major feature of Jesus’s teachings which inform jail and prison ministry. But, no doubt, plenty of people locked up need to repent and live differently, and no doubt THAT would change a lot of their circumstances. But none of this in any way makes Christian sense of measuring success by recidivism rates. Even if that might play a factoring role, a portion of the over all measure, is surely is a distortion of the Gospel to make it the sole measure or the most important.
When I got into street ministry, a similar idea was already taking hold. Homeless people need to get jobs, repent of their sins and lazinesses, and support themselves. Now, along the way that might involve some charity, but as we looked at that closely, we discerned that that part needed to be severely limited, and that success in this work is getting people to become employed, housed, and independent of charity.
Now… I don’t know you or your ideals, but I have read the Bible, and the Bible does not champion that stuff. Doesn’t view dependence as sinful at all. In fact, God seeks dependence – perhaps interdependence, but dependence all the same.
I point this out because it’s NOT the Gospel, the Bible, or Jesus driving these ideas. They are a corruption on the faith.
My comment here is basically tangentially connected to your post, and not directly related to your main point. But I found your case relevant to these observations all the same.
And anyway, the disrespect for homeless, plays a part in driving this stuff. I didn’t realize this when I first got involved, but I have come to see it over time.
The church needs to get back to “saving souls” or some measure of success related to that kind of thing, but I sense the church is feeling more and more irrelevant itself in today’s world and trying to muscle in on a political game or some such.
Your remark about VERY FEW ministry folx asked you FIRST if you already knew Jesus struck me as important. That is actually a sign of disrespect. As your post demonstrates, we came to FIX you with our manipulative agendas.
I hope my own work is improved for having read your post.
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Thanks for this, Agent X. It’s weird how they would measure success in ministry by the rate of recidivism, because God’s work on us in the inner work of the heart. That can’t be measured by recidivism any more than any other measure of worldly success. Also, as you say, if we are really bold and steadfast in our witness, there’s a good chance of getting locked up — just as they did with Paul and Barnabas and the others.
Something you said reminded me of a Scripture that I really love. It’s 1 Peter 4:15-16: “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.” It’s a beautiful thing to share in the suffering of Christ. Our worldly laws are not always just, but His law is just and true. God bless you in your ministry, Agent X.
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Yeah… I been thinking on it for a while…
Might need to write a post on that.
Of course, all I can do is speculate, but perhaps an informed speculation.
I appreciate your words here. Thanx to you as well…
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You’re welcome, Agent X. It will be interesting to see what you come up with.