And then some neighbors got wind of what was going on, and their complaints helped to shut down the project altogether. And one of their primary complaints was one of safety. Yes, you're are hearing that correctly. Because a church was going to let just a few women and children sleep in their cars in the parking lot, neighbors were worried about safety. For themselves. The most poignant and heartbreaking reality of all of this was in a statement by the church after the program was shut down: "The amount of publicity generated by the situation created a hostile environment where the church could not be confident about the safety of the people in the car.” Yes, you heard that right. The neighbors, out of a concern for “safety,” were so riled up, that the church was concerned for the safety of the women and children.
I remember being so angry when I first heard this story. It is a perfect example of NIMBY-ism. The “ let’s help people, but how dare you try to help them in my vicinity” mentality. But the reality is that this way of seeing those in poverty who live on the streets or in their car is not limited to this one neighborhood, but has become a part of our cultural myths about those living on the streets.
I was reading an article this week, and this story of the church in Portland kept coming back up in my mind. The article was simply titled, “Our fear of the homeless is killing the homeless.” The main idea of the article was that there is a widespread culture of shaming the homeless in our country. From ridiculing people who live outside for engaging in life-sustaining activities, to building a culture of fear about those who live on the streets being dangerous, this narrative is carried along by the news and other powers that be. The reality is, however, that it is those who live outside who are actually unsafe. Those who live inside are actually the ones who are a threat to those who live outside, and not the other way around.
One of the most striking things cited in the article was that the idea that those who live outside are dangerous to people and property is just a myth. The realty is that, though homeless people are more likely to have a criminal record, there are actually less likely to commit a violent crime.
On the contrary, those who live outside are more likely to be on the receiving end of the violence of our system. Here are a few of the statistics cited in this article:
- The mortality rate for those living outside is around 7 times great than it is for the general population
- Half of the women and children on the street ended up their because of domestic violence
- At least 2/3 of women on the street have been sexually assaulted (and that is likely a low estimate)
- Treatment for everything from addiction to HIV/AIDS is much harder to access when you live on the street
- The average life-expectancy for someone living on the street is between 40 and 50. The average for the general population is 78.
To live outside is to be perpetually unsafe. Those of us who live inside have many layers of safety surrounding us. We have doors to lock. We have neighborhoods who care about safety. We have security systems. We have healthcare, and cars to get us there. We have social networks of people that can help us. To live outside is to lack most, if not all, of these things.
Yet our fear of those who live outside contributes to their lack of safety. And part of that fear, I think, comes from the fact that such visible poverty is a reminder of how close poverty can be. To quote the article again:
This is what we really hate about the homeless, what really scares us: They are visible reminders of a society with no safety net. They are a microcosm for everything we are permitted to openly hate and shun and ridicule. The lack of privacy and dignity granted to the homeless worsens the issue; homeless individuals are forced to eat, sleep, and excrete for all the world to see because privacy or protection are for people who can afford them. The missing piece seems to be empathy.
Neighbors and politicians are caught in a bind. They don’t want to see them sleeping or smell their unwashed bodies—it just reinforces the disgust and the fear of all of the things we are disgusted by and afraid of —and yet, when given the chance to give them a place to get help, we reject that, too.
And as a pastor, I pray that the Church can step into its vocation to be a place of welcome to those pushed to the margins by poverty. That churches can speak up in their communities about the treatment of those who live outside, and practice a radical hospitality for all the world to see.
I pray all of this. And I am hopeful. But I also realize how ingrained this mentality is, and how much work it will take by all of us to change it. But for the sake of my friends who live outside, we must.