This is a collage (rather than an essay or an analysis) about homelessness, a subject which has pressed itself on my attention from many directions in recent days. I want to preface it with an item I heard on the radio on March 13. Rick Cluff, host of the CBC’s Early Edition, was interviewing former premier Mike Harcourt, who has been working on homelessness in a personal way since 2008. (A quick google search turned up an article describing how he and his brother donated $50,000 from their parents’ estate to an apartment complex in Dunbar (on Vancouver’s west side) for the mentally ill homeless.) He told Rick Cluff that he was convinced that Vancouver could eliminate street homelessness by 2015. This was beautiful to hear; but it has to be placed beside the reality that 80% of the homeless don’t live on the street. However, step by step; and the ending of street homelessness will be a magnificent step in the right direction.
The first reading at church on February 9 was from Isaiah 58, which concerns the connection between fasting (especially done ostentatiously in public, i.e., with sackcloth and ashes) and compassion. God is the speaker.
Is not this the fast that I choose … to share your bread with with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin (6-7)?
I’m hunching that it was because of the reference in this passage to the homeless that Dean Peter Elliott invited Judy Graves to preach that Sunday at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver. Simply put (and of course she would deny this): Judy is a saint, or the next thing to one. For 25 years she was an advocate for the homeless at Vancouver’s City Hall. In her 14-minute sermon, spoken without a note from heart and gut, the proverbial pin if dropped would have been easily heard. Can you spare 14 minutes? If so, you can listen to her sermon at http://www.cathedral.vancouver.bc.ca/2014/02/11/sermon-by-judy-graves-feb-9-2014/
Most of her sermon consisted of story-telling. She told how on many occasions, she would walk through the city at night in order to find and talk with the homeless. Finding some of them asleep around the cathedral, which without an overhang offers no real shelter from the elements, she would ask them why they chose to sleep there. Because, they said, it helped them feel that the hand of God was over them. (Why did I groan inwardly when I heard that?) Another story concerned a former warehouseman, unable through illness to work. He slept rough, even though he had a place to live in Coquitlam, because he couldn’t afford both the cost of transportation from his home to Vancouver (where he was being treated at St Paul’s Hospital) and the cost of food. She offered material help, and then quickly realized that in so doing she had failed to respect his dignity. He had worked out a plan, one not without difficulty, but a plan which was working for him; so she apologized. A third story concerned a former career criminal, who for years had lived comfortably on the avails of his crimes, but for whom conscience had broken through. He had left the life of crime and in consequence found himself homeless. He had, she said, touched the inner point of honesty and stillness that is in each of us, and made a change accordingly, even though it meant eating out of garbage cans.
She acknowledged that indeed the homeless need money, food, and political leaders who will act on their behalf, to say nothing of shelter. Beyond these, they need human contact; yet there is “nothing in our flesh,” she averred, that draws us to make contact with them. It is easy to judge them (as if they are deliberately homeless), something that scripture warns us against (cf. Matthew 7:1-5); and she reminded us that Jesus was himself homeless, at least part of the time (cf. Matthew 8:20)–as was the apostle Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:11)–something I had never noticed until I started working on these reflections about homelessness.
Their challenge to us, she concluded, is not to try to change them, but to look into their eyes deeply enough that we will allow them to change us. To do this is to embark on a spiritual journey, and to find our own need, whatever it may be, mirrored in their need. By the grace of God, this can bring us to a point where we are unwilling to indulge in the kind of judgmentalism that the gospel condemns, and can come to a place where we can live in continuous amazement at the way God works.
Interestingly, there was a sequel to Judy’s sermon on March 2, in the sermon (her first!) preached by Helen Lingham, an intern at the cathedral. In that sermon she told a story of how a friend, not a regular churchgoer, whom she had invited to church on the Sunday when Judy preached, encouraged her to follow Judy’s example in reaching out to the homeless. You can hear this sermon as well, at http://www.cathedral.vancouver.bc.ca/2014/03/03/sermon-by-helen-lingham-march-2-2014/
I belong to a community choir, Local Vocals, which meets under the magical direction of singer-songwriter-ethnomusicologist Anna Baignoche. A couple of weeks ago, we heard from a member of the choir who lives in a co-op, which as well as the adults who live there houses 150 children. The residents are about to be evicted so that the premises may be renovated, after which the rents/maintenance fees will be raised by some 80-90%. Since many of the residents are low-income to begin with, this means that if the renovations go ahead (the residents are appealing to City Hall to stop them), they will all need to find new housing, probably farther out from their present very convenient west-side location.
As part of the resistance, our choir member organized an open house, inviting a number of artists to come and perform. Fifteen members of our choir started things off at 4:00 pm, and the open house continued until 9:00 pm. One of the songs that the choir sang was “I have dreamed on this mountain,” also just called “The mountain song,” inspired by an elderly Appalachian woman (was her name Emma?) whose home was threatened with destruction by a mining company, and written by Holly Near (http://www.emmasrevolution.com/listen/album/wecametosing/10-mountain-song/ One of its most powerful lines: “you can’t just take my dreams away, not without me fighting.”
Another song we sang at choir (not used at the open house), was “It takes more than promises,” by Steve Langley. It asks and responds to three questions. Why am I hungry (in this land of plenty)? Why am I naked (when one person has 200 pairs of shoes)? Why am I homeless (when you own strings of houses)? It addresses the same questions that are addressed in the Isaiah passage: hunger, nakedness (and other forms of vulnerability), and homelessness. With 26 centuries between them, these two statements of human need echo each other exactly.
Anna again. Recently she did a gig in a mansion in Shaughnessy (one of Vancouver’s toniest neighbourhoods). She was chatting with the host, and asked him if he lived there. No, he said, nobody lives here; it’s just a place where we hold parties.
The headline for the front-page article in the February 28 issue of the Guardian Weekly: “Scandal of EU’s empty homes.” The article says that “[M]ore than 11 million homes lie empty across Europe—enough to house all of the continent’s homeless twice over ….” There are more than 3.4 million homes vacant in Spain, more than 2 million in France and in Italy, 1.8 million in Germany and more than 700,000 in the UK. Many of these are in vast holiday resorts built in the housing boom that preceded the 2007-08 financial meltdown, and have never been occupied. In the UK, a charity called Empty Homes, campaigns for vacant homes to be made available for those who need housing; and some local authorities in Catalonia have taken a pro-active stance on this scandal, threatening to impose large fines on banks if the homes they repossess remain empty for more than two years.
A week ago Friday I went to a concert at First Lutheran Church in South Vancouver. There I noticed some posters issued by stophomelessness.ca
They made the point that 80% of the homeless are not on the street, but live in temporary accommodation in shelters, friends’ houses, and so on. I’ve mentioned Anna: in 2010, she in fact spent some time living in her van. Working as a freelance musician and being a grad student, her budget didn’t always extend to regular accommodation. Here’s an article from The Globe and Mail which refers to her situation: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/road-scholars-bcs-cash-strapped-students-take-to-living-in-their-cars/article4468327/
I encourage you to check out the stophomelessness.ca website. It shows that concern for the homeless is rising and that action is being taken. It also offers some very thoughtful reflections on what it means to have a home (as distinct from mere shelter). You may find ideas on that website about what you (or I!) could do to mitigate homelessness.
And Cathy Campbell, an Anglican priest in Winnipeg, writing in the March 2014 issue of the Anglican Journal (p. 4) suggests as a tangible goal for the Anglican Church of Canada, that over the next three years, one third (i.e., nine) of its dioceses commit themselves to pursue at least one affordable housing project; and, in this historical moment of so many churches closing down, to commit at least one quarter of the proceeds of all such property sales to the development of affordable housing. Notice the action words in what she says: goal, commit, pursue. It’s time.
Finally, a word from Jesus in which he makes very personal whatever we do or don’t do in response to human need: “ … when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger [read: homeless] you took me into your home, when naked you clothed me ….” (Matthew 25:35).
That quotation comes from his evocation of the day of judgment. But why should the homeless have to wait for a cosmic day of vindication and the rest of us for a day of shame? If I am homeless, I need a home now. So rather than putting the day of judgment into a distant and thereby convenient future (and I’m not saying that this is what Jesus is saying: it’s what we do with what he says), I would opt for what Tom Robbins, in Skinny Legs and All, says about the day of judgment: “Every day is judgment day.”