An Incoherent Post About Homeless People
Sorry to start the week with a depressing post, but I heard this storyon WBHM this morning and really don’t know how to react:
Homeless people camped beneath Birmingham’s overpasses and railways were warned to move out before the city evicts them this week.
Don Lupo, director of the Mayor’s Office of Citizens Assistance, said the city is responding to requests from railroad officials and the Alabama Department of Transportation.
Lupo said highway and railroad officials want the people removed because they are trespassing on private property.
Violence, petty thefts and unsanitary conditions in the camps also are factors in the decision to remove them, Lupo said.
Many of the people living on the property are not accused of offenses that warrant arrest, Lupo said.
Peter and Greer McCoy, who live in an elaborate hut under Interstate 65, and neighbor Frank Watts, who lives in a meager hut across the field, say the police and railroad security used to check on them to make sure they were all right. The relationship has changed, Watts said.
My first thought was to suggest that when it’s finished, the evicted bums could go live under the elevated 280.
We just spent a fantastic weekend in Chattanooga and my second thought when I head this story was to post something about how Chattanooga is such a great place that it even has better bums than does B’ham. While there, one panhandler approached us and as she began talking I readied myself to hear one of the usual B’ham routines: Either “I’ve got a job interview to get to, but my car broke down, can you give me some money for the part to fix it?” or “My kid needs this medicine, can you give me enough to buy it?” Instead, she said she was a street poet, and that if I gave her some money for breakfast, she’d recite some verse.
Naturally, I said no thanks and kept walking.
Recalling that story led me to my final state of confusion.
It really annoys me when I’m out for a nice evening and some hobo stops me to ask for money. One, they always stink. Two, I know damn well whatever sob story they’re telling me is a lie. Three, I worked for my money, let them work for theirs.
So I never give them any money. I know all the experts say that you ought not give out money. It enables, and all that. But I’m withholding because I want to withhold, not because I’d really like to help, but I know money would be counter-productive.
In short, when I read this story, my instinct was to sympathize with the property owners. I would want the bums off my property, too. They’re a useless annoyance.
But whenever I turn down a request for money, I am immediately filled with regret. Maybe the guy really was going to use the money for a legitimate purpose. Sure they smell bad and look like death warmed over, but life isn’t pleasant, and it’s terribly arrogant of me to get mad at someone for reminding me of that. And of course, there’s the fear that I, a professing Catholic, just told Jesus to piss off:
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; Naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
For those who said no to the bums? Eternal damnation. Note, according to this text anyway, blessed or damned does not depend on how vigorously the individual opposed civil rights for homosexuals, or what theory of the atonement was accepted, or on belief in papal infallibility. Nope, the distinction isn’t doctrine but practice. Those who feed the hungry are blessed while those who don’t are cursed.
And the “bums” are, according to the text, more than bums. They’re more than people, even. They’re God himself.
So what ought I do? Maybe I ought to start carrying cash and being more liberal with it. The text doesn’t leave much room for excuses. Maybe, because the point is helping the hungry, and giving money directly to them really is not a good way to help, I ought to content myself with donations to local charities. Certainly, though, my attitude ought to change.
And what about situations like the bums under the bridges? That’s the hard part. These property owners are perfectly justified in wanting the homeless off their property, my religious views notwithstanding. The camps are unseemly and, among other problems, the fires they use for warmth in winter are a real hazard. But what to do with them? These are people, most of whom have serious problems and little ability to help themselves. I don’t think anyone wants to just ignore them and leave them to their fate.
Also in the news today, we just heard that the Jimmie Hale Mission’s long-awaited move to its new, larger quarters in the old Thomas School building is complete. . . . Tony Cooper, the Mission’s executive director, said the Shepura Men’s Center will hold an open house and dedication ceremony April 22 from 2-3:30 p.m.
Jimmie Hale announced in 2005 that it would move by summer 2006 in order to have more space. The move means the Mission will be located further away from downtown services and job opportunities, but it also allows the Mission to expand its own services. And, hey, downtown denizens will probably be happy that some of the area’s homeless are now out of sight and out of mind. (We’ll still have to see how the City of Birmingham’s 10-year-plan to end chronic homelessness works in action.)
I don’t have any faith in long term wars on concepts, whether the concept be drugs, or terror or homelessness. I do have a lot of faith in concrete acts by real folks. This actions by the mission seems like a win for everyone. The building they renovated looked to me like it was ready to collapse; now it looks brand new. So that’s one less dilapidated, dangerous, abandoned building in B’ham. It’s also in an industrial area, rather than downtown. So that’s putting potential nuisances with other potential nuisances. That’s a win for the residantial and shopping areas. And the mission now has all kinds of space to help the homeless people who depend on them.
Anyway, I spent a lot of time writing this, and probably haven’t said anything. But there it is, for whatever it’s worth.