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 Writer's Desk 

April 10, 2006
Vol. 4, No. 02


God enters when we open our doors to strangers

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

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In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, when an army of unemployed, displaced Americans rode the rails and roamed the highways of this country looking for work and a place to stay, Peter Maurin co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, proposed one of his typically radical solutions to the problem of homelessness.

In an early “Easy Essay” (a misnomer if there ever was one), Maurin reminded Catholic bishops that in the medieval church every diocese supported hospices for transients and the indigent. This was not a question of charity, but instead the normal expression of the church’s commitment to the corporal works of mercy: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was a stranger and you received me” (Matt 25). The church recognizes the stranger, Maurin said, not just out of compassion, but because the poor are “ambassadors from God.” In receiving them, we receive God. Without direct engagement with the poor, we fail to grow in love. Maurin wrote: “We need houses of hospitality to give the rich an opportunity to serve the poor, to bring the bishop to the people and the people to the bishop.”

Hospitality became the basic practice of Catholic Worker Houses and the mark of their spirituality. When we dare open our doors to those in need, God enters.

If the church had embraced Maurin’s radical challenge, or inspired public policy to do likewise, there might be no homeless problem today. In fact, there is a huge homeless problem because, even 70 years after the Depression, economic dislocation, social stratification, racial prejudice, crime and drugs still define America. Homelessness only makes visible one of the many fault lines in a social compact nominally committed to both individual freedom and the common good.

Homelessness, both chronic and episodic, has not yielded to radical Christianity. It is a complex social problem that has required resources only public policy can provide. Like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the G.I. Bill and other forms of social welfare, housing assistance has long been a part of national policy designed to guarantee basic needs. Federal housing grants to cities (giving back tax money) and Section-8 low income housing assistance are programs built into the social compact. When these programs fail to keep up with need, a shortage of affordable housing occurs and homelessness rises.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s staged foray in the service economy as described in Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America (Owl, New York, 2005) revealed that even three part-time, minimum-wage jobs (the backbone of Wal-Mart’s America), could not keep up with the cost of basic housing.

Private developers need public funds in grants and tax abatement to create housing. A $57-million-dollar plan to restore historic apartment complexes along Armour Boulevard just up the street from the National Catholic Reporter’s offices in Kansas City, Mo., will rely almost exclusively on tax money. Because those funds include large grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, some 300 units must be designated for low income residents.

Not everyone is happy about this. Midtown Kansas City, like the older core areas of many cities, is the focus of gentrification and economic development. The “poor we always have with us” collides with “not in my backyard” as public meetings reveal the struggle between property values, public safety, crime prevention and the deeper implications of the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

As this once blighted corridor makes a comeback, large apartment buildings that were used to concentrate low income people in order to get HUD money, now are seen as a problem. Neighborhood associations, city planners and developers need HUD money, but would like to push poorer residents east into the urban core, keeping the better buildings for upscale renters who can pay in full.

Community activists want a dispersal of Section-8 units throughout the refurbished buildings, producing a mixed-income and racially diverse neighborhood, instead of the usual apartheid of gated communities here and housing projects there. Some point to crime and drugs where Section-8 housing exists. Others argue that this only occurs when low income people are isolated and management abandons its obligation to provide maintenance and security for all.

Read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Million Dollar Murray” in the Feb 13 and 20, 2006 issue of The New Yorker, for a provocative look into the current models for dealing with homelessness in many American cities. Chronically homeless people, the relatively small hardcore population of street panhandlers, most of whom are alcoholics and substance abusers who will rack up million-dollar bills for police, ambulance, hospital, treatment costs before they die on the streets or in jail, are the most visible aspect of the homeless problem for most ordinary citizens. Efficient and cost-effective management of hard-case exceptions to our enlightened efforts at social planning to create the good life for the majority is seen as a priority.

Look for many cities, Kansas City included, to push for “Compassion Zones” where the chronically homeless will be given lockers, showers, meals, counseling, basic healthcare, a change of clothes, a bed and an identity card in exchange for staying away from tourists downtown. Churches and charitable organizations downtown and in midtown will be urged to stop enabling these folks. The public will support this because it is humane, fair, balances the interests of the poor with those of city planners and private investment. The poor will disappear, in effect.

Holy Family Catholic Worker House in Kansas City, Mo., has survived for 30 years meeting the growing needs of the poor, but it may not survive this shift in public policy. But will this policy really address the problem of homelessness?

Who are the real homeless? The chronic cases include many shopping cart salvagers, odd-job entrepreneurs and free-spirited itinerants who survive under bridges, in abandoned buildings and in camps. The homeless also are former prison inmates who are barred from Section-8 housing, the mentally ill on (or off) their medications, families in between apartments because they could not pay their utilities or the second month’s rent, families living in cars always en route to a distant job offer that may or may not be there, illegal immigrants and runaway young people who exchange sex for cash or food or crash with friends, then head back to the street among the predators who, they say, will always get you if the police don’t get you first.

Most policy models use data from shelter intakes. The good news, reported by Gladwell, is that some studies show that the broader homeless population only needs to use shelters on average for one or two days.

The bad news is that most of the groups described above do not go to shelters and so are uncounted beans in the policy planning. The other reality, which escapes social planners, is that people who are staying with relatives and friends, in cheap motels on vouchers from churches, in their cars en route to somewhere else, are also homeless. This uncounted and vast population is what defines poverty, its instability and desperation, the humiliation of parents unable to provide a secure and stable world for their children, living on the edge, in the netherworld where the uninsured, malnourished, elderly, illegal, unskilled and unemployable live while waiting for the homeless hammer to fall.

This group includes the lucky ones who have Section-8 but who will lose eligibility if their children leave or if they earn too much at an extra job. This is where Michael Harrington’s “Other America” still exists, once a problem to be solved, now bordering on a permanent underclass seething beneath the surface of America the beautiful and prosperous.

Who is my neighbor? Peter Maurin said to count yourself blessed if you are bound by blood or love to someone who steals your vodka, cadges your cigarettes, takes loans he never repays, sleeps on your porch if you won’t let him sleep on your floor, calls you in the middle of night and insists that you rescue him from some catastrophe that is never his fault, and who will break your heart every day until you stand over his grave wondering if you really did enough.

This ambassador of God is your open door to heaven by way of hell. Being a house of hospitality or having a “Christ Room” in your spare bedroom, summer porch or finished basement, may never be practical or reasonable for most of us. But imagine a night where everyone in your city sleeps secure in a clean bed, fed and bathed, a human being again.

Dorothy Day still sits at the real councils of power, in the consciences of all of us who want to do the right thing but don’t know exactly what that is. It is enough to welcome everyone as Christ, to live the questions and be grateful God’s poor see you as their friend.

The fearless may want to read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” on the topic of the demands of unconditional love for those who are indifferent to our influence and good intentions, but be warned it will render you mad.

Pat Marrin's e-mail address is patmarrin@aol.com. Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. For a preview, follow this link: Celebration.
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