January 20, 2008
“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). This is Jesus' description of his own living situation. If we take this passage at face value, it suggests that he was homeless.
A follower of Jesus, I've never known true homelessness. Living for a time in the Pasadena YMCA is as close to being homelessness as I've ever been. After paying the first month's rent, I had less than a $100 in my pocket and no job. My situation was difficult, but there were prospects for a job and a family who would have helped - even if they lived out-of-state. As brief as my stay on the edge of homelessness was, it gave me a glimpse into what it must be like to not know where the next meal will come from or not have a roof over one's head. It was only a glimpse, but for many it's a daily reality.
People are homeless for different reasons. Though incomprehensible to many of us, some of the homeless choose to live on the streets. But there are many others, the vast majority, who didn't choose this life. Some are there due to mental illness or drug and alcohol issues. Others have landed on the streets or in shelters because of economic factors - including health-related bills. Each has his or her own story to tell, and many of the stories are heartbreaking - especially when children are involved.
Unlike in larger communities, the homeless problem is less visible in our community, but it's present. Indeed, our local shelter was involved in a confrontation over donated beds, which ended up in the dump. This raised questions about how the homeless are treated in our community.
As pastor of a church that has supported Bridgehouse and Mark's House over the years, and which provided volunteers for this ill-fated venture, I had concerns of my own. A visit to the shelter and a conversation with its director gives me confidence in the decision to continue this long-standing relationship. It's unfortunate that my congregation, along with others, was caught in the middle. We, like others involved, assumed that this donation had been coordinated with the shelter, but this assumption proved unfounded. There is, of course, more to this story, but that's not why I'm writing today.
If there is a silver lining to this episode, it's that it brought to our attention the reality of homelessness in our community. It reminded us that living among us are the poor, the needy, the sick, and those without adequate and affordable housing. It's not someone else's problem to address, it's a problem the entire community must face. Indeed, it's a problem facing thousands of people living across our country. The unemployment rate may be fairly small - about 5 percent - but even many employed men and women find it difficult to obtain safe and affordable housing. The result is that they live on the edge or on the streets, not knowing where they'll find a bed and a meal.
To better understand the issue, I did a little online research. I ran across HUD's “Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress” (February 2007), which estimates that between Feb. 1 and April 30, 2005, there was a daily average of 334,744 people living in homeless shelters, while another 338,781 people were living unsheltered. Of those in shelters, 66 percent were individuals, while another 34 percent involved an adult with at least one child.
Another study estimated that over a five-year period upwards of 8 million Americans experienced at least one night of homelessness. These numbers are significant enough that they should get our attention.
Finding a solution to the problem won't be easy. It will take money and political will. Religious communities, like the one I pastor, will have a role to play in this effort, but ultimately it will take the community as a whole - government, businesses, schools, nonprofits, mental health, and medical providers - working together to find a solution.
Ignoring the problem won't make it go away, and as a follower of one who once was homeless, I know I must open my eyes to the problem and join in the effort to make a difference.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (http://www.lompocdisciples.org). He blogs at http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o First Christian Church, P.O. Box 1056, Lompoc, CA 93438.
January 20, 2008