Homelessness reveals the lump in our cultural carpet

As a downtown Allentown church, we at Zion’s thought we knew something about ministry to the homeless. But there’s nothing like running an overnight shelter and soup kitchen for a month to teach us a few new lessons.

Thanks to some forty volunteers, like Rochell Figueroa, from a dozen different churches, Zion’s “Liberty Bell” Church  opened our Fellowship Hall to the homeless on Easter weekend, one day after the Lehigh Conference of Churches abruptly closed its shelter.

The Conference of Churches, along with the Allentown Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, and the Sixth Street Shelter, helps people who live at the edges of our community. Our recent experience with this “stopgap” shelter reveals the importance of their support for the homeless. It also showed what happens when the charitable safety net is withdrawn, even for a short period of time.

One case in point: when the Conference shelter closed, one man who was staying there wandered the streets when he left work that Friday evening. With light rain falling, the temperature in the upper 50s seemed especially cold, so José looked for a warm, dry place. He walked the streets until he passed an empty laundromat. Going inside, he curled up and fell asleep, until awakened by police. They told him only that he couldn’t sleep there and sent him on his way.

He finally wandered into a hospital ER where staff agreed he could sit in the waiting room till morning. It was warm, dry and safe, and he dozed off. When he suddenly awakened, realizing the hour, he hurried to the restaurant where he recently had gotten a job, arriving just in time to be fired for being late.

Progress for the homeless is just that tenuous; their achievements are just that precarious. For him, simply not having a place to sleep was enough to cost him his job.

Homelessness is the lump in our cultural carpet. For years we have been sweeping problems under the rug. We closed state mental institutions, then underfunded or de-funded hospitals, counselors and other service providers that might have given care to more of the mentally ill and addicted.

We over-incarcerate. We promise to rehabilitate. But the penitentiary is just the beginning of the penalty. Those with criminal records are continually penalized when seeking jobs or housing.

Our economic system expands wealth at the top and squeezes those at the bottom. Finding a full-time job often is not enough to liberate people from the ranks of the working poor. When living from paycheck to paycheck, homelessness results from unexpected, sometimes catastrophic bills. (Read this Profile of the Working Poor: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswp2012.pdf

Rising rental costs and a shortage of affordable housing means even those who find a decent job have difficulty finding a decent place to live.

In our short, stopgap stint helping 64 homeless individuals, we encountered people who struggled with each of those systemic problems; many struggled with multiple systems. And I haven’t even mentioned the way racial issues affect the homeless. Minorities are significantly over-represented. Read more here: Minorities and Homelessness

Homelessness is the lump in our cultural carpet that should remind us we can’t keep sweeping these systemic problems under the rug.

The good news from the gentleman mentioned above is that he found a new job in another restaurant. He wants to work. Although the new job pays 50¢ less per hour than the previous one, he resumed saving toward a security deposit so at last he’ll be off the streets. Let’s hope there isn’t another bump in the road. Or a bigger lump in the carpet.

That’s really the point in this “case in point.” The National Alliance to End Homelessness advocates a “Housing First” approach : provide housing first to create stability so people can address the root causes of their situation.

At Zion’s church the homeless slept just a few feet from where the Liberty Bell once was hidden. Inscribed on that bell is the jubilee text (Leviticus 25) proclaiming economic freedom as well as liberty to those who lived at the edges of the community in ancient Israel.

It is fair and just; it also should be our patriotic duty to provide better care for those who live at the edges in a nation as prosperous as ours.

# # # an edited version of this blog article appeared on the opinion page of the Allentown Morning Call

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