The other day, a friend of mine who is from New York made a comment that I had trouble parsing, because I couldn’t tell if it was facetious or sincere. As part of an exposition on the myriad cultural differences between Americans from the East Coast (or Northeast) and the West Coast (or California), he noted that part of the extremely laid-back, laissez-faire attitude that defines the West — in opposition to a relatively more forthright and no-nonsense East — manifested itself in the way that much of California’s homeless population actually chooses to live in a state of chronic housing insecurity.
When I heard that, I couldn’t help but bristle. And then I checked myself: what exactly about that statement bothered me? I don’t know much about homelessness, but it’s off-putting to me to think that someone would really prefer sleeping in a tent or on a stoop at night rather than in a room with four walls and a roof. And to attribute such a preference to mere cultural differences? It’s a sweeping generalization at best.
There are, of course, hundreds of other factors that might affect regional statistics on homelessness, including the obvious one (given the Northeast’s current battle with a horrendously frigid winter) that it is easier to survive without permanent shelter in a Californian climate. This could theoretically influence a person who is not in completely dire circumstances to choose to remain homeless for a longer period than they at first anticipated, as long as protection against the elements is ensured.
So, I did realize two things from that moment: the first is that I am not nearly informed enough about the homelessness problem in my city/state/country, and the second is that perhaps not everyone who is homeless actually views their condition as a problem. But I am going to put away that second realization for now, because my experience for the past couple of months has been with homeless youth who certainly did not choose to live on the streets of Berkeley, and I want to help them leave their situation for the better one that they deserve.
I have volunteered with a non-profit organization called Youth Engagement, Advocacy, and Housing (also known as YEAH!) since the beginning of this year. They are, at their most fundamental, a shelter for homeless youth aged 18-25 that provides for their physical needs (beds, showers, meals, laundry) and social needs (counseling, employment, case management). A large proportion of its task force is comprised of volunteers who monitor the shelter’s bathrooms, cook and serve meals, and occasionally do an all-out cleanup at the Lutheran Church of the Cross, where YEAH! operates. The role that I have settled on for the coming months is a breakfast cook: pancakes and eggs for all the guests every Tuesday morning from 6:30 to 8:30.
It has been a rewarding experience so far, but I won’t dramatize it by saying that I do this for the warm fuzzies. Actually, it’s more often a thankless job. Our guests come into the breakfast room, grab food, converse loudly amongst themselves, and leave us bucketfuls of dirty dishes to wash afterward. I don’t talk to many of them, unless they ask for seconds. Some always stumble in after the serving period has finished and demand food that I’ve already put away. But… yes, there are also high points: a guy about my age who whistles in delight every morning, as if a warm breakfast is a miracle he’s never seen before despite the fact that he’s been at the shelter for weeks. Jokes and smiles from the other staffers, music that a guest plays on the crappy piano in the corner of the dining room. And at the end of the morning, there’s also the feeling that I’ve done something positive for someone else, at no cost to myself.
I feel it important to mention, in addition, that serving others is one of the core beliefs of my Christian faith. Although I do feel good about my personal contributions, in the end it’s actually not about what I alone can do. In fact, if I were to rely solely on my own strength to help others, eventually I’d run out of motivation and passion. I know that my imperfection means that sometimes, I won’t always give 100% effort; sometimes, I’ll forget to serve with humility; eventually, I’ll stop caring so much. Some would say in response that it’s really just the thought that counts. Well, I say instead, it’s the spirit that counts. What I mean is, I believe I can only do anything worthwhile through God’s strength working in me. Since God does want this world to be free of physical distress (e.g. homelessness and other social ills), He can empower people to combat it, and with respect to this, achieving His goals becomes my primary motivation.
I’m reminded of something very interesting that Jesus once said, recorded in Mark chapter 14 and Matthew chapter 26. He essentially told his followers to stop thinking so much about money they could collect for their good civil services, because poverty was never going to be eradicated. “The poor you will always have with you… but you will not always have me.” Sort of an odd thing for Jesus to say, don’t you think? By most accounts, he was all about serving the poor, the sick, and the outcast; his brief, three-year ministry was one that seemed to prioritize the marginalized. But when he rebuked his disciples for wanting to sell the expensive perfume that an outcast woman was “wasting” on his feet, it wasn’t because he had suddenly changed his tune about the poor. It was because he wanted them to realize that for Christians, our service to others should never eclipse our service to God. God must come first.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that as I think more and more about how to honor God by serving the homeless in my community, I’ve noticed a steady increase in dialogue about this very issue in my daily encounters. For example, the questions of what Christians should do with their money if panhandlers ask for it, or how openly a church should partner with welfare organizations, have routinely come up in my church’s small group discussions. Also, I’ve stumbled across several really interesting and pertinent articles online, which I’d love to share with you.
“Why counting America’s homeless is both imperative and imperfect” is a comic-style report from Susie Cagle about the national homeless census conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I was shocked at some of the statistics: the Obama administration pledged five years ago to end chronic homelessness by 2015 (that’s this year) and all youth homelessness by 2020, but while they have made massive strides in reducing homelessness in some demographics (e.g. veterans, California overall), there were still over 600,000 homeless people in the country at the last census. Don’t just gloss over that number: Six hundred thousand. Much of the article is also dedicated to revealing how the flaws in the counting system make for dubious statistics in the first place, but there’s no way anyone can look at that number and not think there’s something we could be doing better.
Fortunately, some people have been doing an outstanding job. “Housing First” (or, if you prefer its clickbait title, “The Shockingly Simple, Surprisingly Cost-Effective Way to End Homelessness”) by Scott Carrier talks about an initiative called Housing First that has reduced homelessness in Utah by 72% in the past decade while also saving the state some money. Now, having just seen the previous article about how all of these statistics are compiled, I read this one through slightly less-than-rose-colored lenses, but it didn’t really undermine the amazing work that this program and the LDS Church have done. The article dives into the personal stories of several homeless people (who, for the record, did not choose to live on the streets) and highlights how being secured a place to live from the very start, no strings attached, gave them a much higher chance at cleaning up and stabilizing their lives. Here are more stories of a similar nature, if you’re interested in reading them and/or enjoy portrait photography: a series by psychiatrist/photographer Robert Okin called Silent Voices.
Next, this Rolling Stone article, “The Forsaken: A Rising Number of Homeless Gay Teens Are Being Cast Out by Religious Families” by Alex Morris, was what really started it all for me. When I was at Swarthmore, I volunteered at a shelter for LGBTQ teens for one semester, and I wanted to do something similar in Berkeley. After I read the Rolling Stone article, I felt even more convicted about doing something not just to relieve the symptoms of teen homelessness but also work on healing the cause, which is familial rifts over religious doctrine. Anyway, that was what first led me to YEAH! in Berkeley, which is not specifically a shelter for LGBTQ teens but does serve a large number of them. I don’t know if the teens at YEAH! have stories as distressing as those of the teens profiled in the Rolling Stone piece, but I am sure that they are no strangers to the kinds of misfortunes we the privileged have never even dreamt of.
Look, I don’t mean to merely tug at heartstrings. I myself, more than most people, respond negatively to emotional manipulation. I’m sharing these links and stories because it’s plain to me that there’s a problem, but also that there is a solution, and more support is necessary to link the two. I hope that in particular, more of the hundreds of churches in Berkeley and San Francisco will wake up to the plight of the “least of these” in their communities and work on ending homelessness together with the government, NGOs, and the homeless themselves. The last article I’ll share is one was written about the program I volunteer with, YEAH!, in a local newspaper: “Another Kind of Homeless Program” in The Monthly. If you’re in Berkeley, please consider volunteering with us or supporting us financially.
What social ill do you think we as a country will be able to end by 2020?
Word of the Day: vagary, a strange and unpredictable idea or action, from the Latin root meaning “wandering, unsettled.” (I was intrigued that this root also gave rise to the words vague, vagrant, vagabond, and extravagance.) Note that this word is more often used in the plural, as in, “The vagaries of life were such that one could find himself living in relative comfort one day but vagabonding on the streets the next.”