Homelessness as an Indicator of Our Society’s Priorities

“They put all of society’s problems on us. They make money from criminalizing us. Every time they lock us up, money goes into someone’s pockets.  That’s why they are making it so hard for things to get better.” – Known Unknown

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It’s been nearly two years since I heard the above words and yet I hear them anew every time I drive through downtown Boulder, on what is almost a daily basis. They are paraphrased from a statement made by a man giving remarks at a memorial service for  his friend, Benjamin Harvey, who died outside in the severe cold and was found Christmas morning. Both Benji and this man are homeless. I didn’t know Benji or this man, but I attended the service for several reasons, one of which is that from what I heard about Benji, he seemed like someone I could have learned from. Over the years, I have been blessed to learn many things from unsheltered people–some of whom I lived with for short stints. In my soul, I know many of them as “Bearers of the Realm”. But that is another story.

What I want to talk about now is why the statements from Benji’s friend stood out to me. Honestly, it was because he was white. I’ll just be real about it. You see, I have heard his words many times in my life. I have felt his words. I have said his words. I know people who are living his words. But before hearing them come out of his mouth, I had only heard them from black and brown people. So hearing it from him initiated and instant paradigm shift for me. You see, in terms of how I looked at the American social structure, to some degree, I grew up with the mentality that Chris Rock talked about in his album, Born Suspect, where I understood that being black meant being the repository for white fear, angst, and inadequacy. It was common knowledge that we were blamed for many, if not most, of American society’s issues. But a white person? Could they say the same thing? I guess I never thought about it before.

WARNING!!! – NOT FOR SENSITIVE EARS
DO NOT CLICK ON THIS IF YOU CAN’T HANDLE EXPLETIVES OR RACIAL EPITHETS

At times when I was younger, being black felt like starting a 100 yard dash with a cast on, the starter pistol is aimed at you, and there are hurdles of all kinds in front of you. Meanwhile the stadium is booing at you and saying you don’t deserve to even be in the race. On the contrary, I imagined being white was like running what is considered the “same race” with a 50 yard head start, no hurdles, and a cheering section as big as the world. Seeing society this way, no matter what situation I saw a white person in, I never thought I would hear someone identifying as white saying that society puts its problems on them. In fact, for years I thought the most down and out white man was just a shower, shave, and suit away from social acceptance.

Of course my mentality has evolved  over the years and I no longer rely on such simplistic distinctions to navigate the inequalities in our society. I know that some facets of what we allow to separate us are complex. But I also know that much of the complexity is human made and so when I heard this man make this statement I was quickly able to see the commonality between him and the black and brown people who could relate to his statement. Poverty.

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Almost any poor person can make that statement. That’s what I realized. And once I could accept this, it really was not that difficult to connect the dots. Every society has seemed to establish itself based on the premise that some group had to play the role that is usually projected on to black and brown people in this country. Like all of those nations throughout history, our country always needs some people to be on the bottom. At least that is our unconscious belief and sadly we will do all manners of shameful things to maintain the structures built on that belief. That is something black and brown people know all too well. But now the disease has spread into places that the architects of these systems didn’t anticipate and it is manifesting in the shape of crises that no know color, race, or ethnicity, such as homelessness, stress related mental and physical health issues, the opiate problems, and more.  And when you look at all of these issues combined, it can all seem quite hopeless.  But the fact is that it isn’t hopeless.  Poverty and all of its offshoots can be healed. We just need a shift in priorities.

A Society of Equals

There’s no problem that a society of equals cannot solve. But a society based on inequality is nothing but problematic. – Me (as far as I know)

Sleeping Pods to get Around Zoning Issues

A lot of people look at problems like homelessness and say it is too much to handle. That’s why we try to cover it up or hide it from view. But the reality is that there are no problems in the world that are more than we can handle. We just have a tendency to make it difficult for the solutions to get where they want to be. Some of the reason for this is that our current economic system is based on managing debt rather than realizing wealth, opportunity, and greater distribution.  Even if we don’t know it consciously, the basic idea behind our economic system is “whoever owns the most debt wins”. In order to maintain this, we must establish systems designed to create massive debt.  And because this mindset functions as an operating principle, it translates to pretty much everything we do and create–even down to how our government is run. As a result, our ability to solve these challenges is compromised by the fact that we are trying to do so in the context that someone has to owe us for what we create. Unfortunately, a debt consciousness automatically imposes limits and limitations naturally go against the flow of creativity.

That’s why even when we try to do good, we are constantly monitoring this psychological debt principle. This principle is our first priority. Homelessness is a great indicator of this, because it can happen to anyone. There are more than enough solutions to greatly alleviate or even eliminate homelessness. The problem is that none of the solutions align with the nearly ubiquitous debt principle based paradigm operating in most social environments. The fact is that solving any of these issues is going to require a shift in consciousness that expels debt by acting on our largely latent benevolence impulse. This means giving without the thought of how or if something is coming back to us or even whether the receiver realizes “how much” people are doing for them.

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…”
Jesus

If you are operating from a debt based mindset, the calculative approach to every situation in life can’t help but seem the most valid. So even when people who transcend this mentality show up with a viable alleviation or solution to one of our societal challenges, many of us can’t help but act like crabs in a bucket and pull progress back down to earth.  Equality is a threat to the existing structure precisely because our subconscious programming keeps asking, “But who will be on the bottom if everyone is equal?”  That’s why we have all of the poorest people fighting with each other. Against our own best interests, we have bought into the idea that someone has to be at the bottom and yet no one wants it to be them. But what if everyone could rise up? What would that look like? Well we won’t know until we shift our priorities toward realizing a society of equals rather fighting each other not to be the bottom.

There’s an App for That – Tech Takes on Homelessness

In a society of equals, there is no question that all of our problems can be solved because we know that we belong to each other and we can do anything together. When you operate from this mindset, there is no limit to your creativity. That’s what enabled the people at Samaritan to come up with their benevolence based app formerly know as GiveSafe. And they are not the only ones working on solutions like this.

Free Vending Machine for People Experiencing Homelessness

When Action Hunger founder, Huzaifah Khaled decided to create this vending machine that offers food to people experiencing homelessness, I doubt he did so thinking that the people served by it would owe him. I imagine, that rather, he was operating from the mindset that tells us there is a solution for every perceived problem. He saw the need and went about filling it using concepts that already exist in the world. And the irony is not lost on me that with a name like Huzaifah Khaled, there is the high probability that he identifies in some way with one of the groups deemed “bottom” under the existing paradigm. But that didn’t stop him from creating a solution to a problem he perceived.

Make contribution to alleviate impact of homelessness via credit card jacket

Each innovation highlighted here is an example of people creating solutions to get around the societal limitations that exacerbate the homeless problem. Now imagine what could be created if people like Huzaifah Khaled did not have to come up against this resistance and rather could freely innovate and create solutions to for our challenges. Imagine what you could create if you were not operating from the debt paradigm.

As for me, I am putting my thoughts and words out here because this is the gift I have been given. So it is the gift I give away, trusting that what is meant for me will return to me. I know that this post is long and is a journey in and of itself. But I hope you can make the connections and join those of us who are intentionally working to transcend any notion that we are separate. In truth, we are all One. The more of us that make the realization of this our priority, the faster we get out of the way and allow that truth to reshape our society into one where we live out the true meaning of its creed.

Coat that doubles as a sleeping bag. Perfect for getting around camping bans.
There is no end to the innovation possible if people give a damn.
The things we take for granted


“They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever” — Psalm 112


4 thoughts on “Homelessness as an Indicator of Our Society’s Priorities

  1. Really good, thoughtful post. Perhaps your best yet. It is making me rethink and see in a new light about much of what I saw and heard and learned during my time as a chaplain ministering to the homeless.

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  2. Reblogged this on The Roofless Church and commented:

    Today, December 20, 2020, we honored the lives of 42 of our unhoused and recently unhoused neighbors. I felt especially blessed to be with them and to honor their lives. And at the same time I cannot forget that this memorial is a reminder of how we often fail one another in this world. And at the same time, this was a gathering of hope and possibilities. If you see this, please consider the possibilities it presents and be in wonder how you might be able to encourage a world where homeless memorials are no longer necessary. There is more than enough for all.

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  3. It’s my second time to visit this post, but I can’t say that I exactly recall it from before. At any rate, I need to say that I am grateful for the gift you pass on. Thank you for caring, for helping, and for blogging on this.

    You cover, actually, quite a lot of ground in this post. I need to confess that it has taken me upwards of 4 sit downs to read it all. I am interrupted frequently! Pardon me, please, if my focus is a bit off. It may have as much to do with distractions as with the breadth of your subject matter.

    As for the racial component, I, of course, am white. No doubt that “colors” the way I see things, including the way I see advantage/disadvantage and “color” itself, for that matter. In fact, I am more likely to have a “color” lens that I do not recognize, I figure. There are features of generality in that, but then there are the individual aspects that are unique to me personally and also to the time/place when I am looking. But that is getting pretty ethereal without actually saying much now too.

    Still, despite my shortcomings in insight or sensitivity due in part to my whiteness, I am one who cares and who dares to attempt sensitivity. I evolve too.

    Moving on from color and race, one of the things unique to my perspective is the fact that I grew up with a dad who was a FAMILY counselor. Marriage and Family Therapy was his educational focus. I grew up under his influence.

    NOW

    That was HIS education, NOT MINE. I did not formally study that stuff. I picked up a lot of residual thinking from him, but not formal study – meaning, some of my ideas may well be exactly wrong, but nonetheless exposed to his thought-world and worldview quite a lot. So bear with me as I draw from that a moment – for better or for worse.

    Dad was always looking at GROUP DYNAMICS and FAMILY units and the bits and parts as they fit into those things. No single person was an island unto themselves, but were PARTS of larger wholes. The parts were not the whole and not in complete isolation from one another. People played roles, like in dramatic plays. Roles were chosen AND assigned, but never completely assigned without some consent – or rarely so. This means that “black sheep” or “scapegoat” roles typically were chosen (surprisingly) as well as assigned.

    It turns out there is some leverage by taking the underdog role. It may not be a fair trade, probably not in most people’s eyes, but there are all manner of motives for choosing difficult parts. I might take a vow of poverty as a matter of religious faith, but I might expect it gives me the moral high ground for my trouble. Most Americans would look down on that idea, but a few would prize it, ironically.

    I don’t point that out to argue it to death, but to demonstrate this is a kind of thinking that we can (and some do) employ when it comes to relating to others. It’s NOT the only viewpoint, nor is it necessarily the right one or always the best one. However, in our individualist culture, it is one almost always overlooked or shunned. We have help making these choices, there are webworks of relations and circumstances that we will not likely exhaust in our analyses, but we can recognize they are there pushing and pulling us into or out of shape.

    This stuff applies to larger communities than just families too. Teams, organizations, churches, even towns and cities, even nations… all exhibit certain character(s). Chicago and Lubbock are very different from one another, but both play roles in making America “America.” A lot of choices have been made at individual and group levels to give each their character and to give America it’s character.

    America is very, very different from Egypt or North Korea. The differences are far more complex than the simple and obvious generalizations we can make (which hold a lot of truth in them, but which can be somewhat deceptive too – since they are simple generalizations). I know I would rather be homeless in America than in North Korea. Despite all the economic and social pressures that put people on the streets in America, there are tons of services and food and clothing given away of which I am smart enough to avail myself in America, but once shunned by society in a tightknit culture like that of far easterners, I would likely freeze to death on the side of the road and be left to rot there.

    When I start to think biblically on these things (again, my view of “biblical” here is not one monolithic idea, but merely an approach to understanding that seeks to be informed by the Bible (which could be one of many while still doing that), I see that God created humanity to bear his image, that he made us naked and vulnerable (in his image) and accountable to each other and to him for how we treat his image. We could, biblically speaking, submit ourselves to one another in humble service – bond slavery – and honor both him and each other completely, do this in selfless LOVE, and have no regard for ourselves. IF we ALL did this, then all boats would rise with the tide to be sure… meaning there is a selfish level to this still, but one that is only realized in selflessness. IF we all did this, then, biblically speaking, we would all walk on water, lions and lambs would lie down together, flowers would bloom as we walk along the path, we would never have fear and the dead would not stay dead (presumably would not even die).

    But the image bearers chose otherwise. We wanted to “be like God” even though we already were. And now we are selfish, self serving, and self-centered. We unabashedly look out for NUMBER 1 (or if not, we attempt to “balance” these ideas which cannot ultimately be balanced, but we hope there is a sense of equity and fairness to be had there).

    We are either ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, or we are not in it at all.

    Biblically speaking.

    (Well, I should probably say theologically (biblical-theology) speaking.)

    While I am in favor of supporting homeless-ministry through technology, and while I find that quite imaginative and helpful, I don’t see salvation in it.

    N.T. Wright once said (and I paraphrase), We have computers that can analyse everything about everything, but we cannot stop ourselves shelling each other to bits in the snow. The principalities and powers stop us from finally working out all the details and achieving utopia. We simply must LOVE God and one another and learn to do this to the fullest depth God gives humanity.

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    1. Do you know the whole saying about give a person the fish feed them for a day and teach them to fish and feed them for a lifetime? People say that like it’s an either or dichotomy. As if, when we fee people we are somehow preventing them from learning how to fish. My take is give the hungry people fish while you teach them how to fish. I study family systems theory and Bowen theory in seminary and I am all about relational dynamics. So to the degree that I can, I get where your dad was coming from. I also think that humans are inherently problem solver‘s. However, we often think the other people are the problem and so the way to solve it is to ignore or eliminate the people. I don’t agree with that. Also, in my experience, I’ve seen way too many Christians profess Christ and justifyAll sorts of human atrocities. Remember, Hitler thought he was a good Christian and the church went along with it for the most part. So, I basically just focus on loving my neighbor as myself and loving God and seeing how that guides me and what I say, do, and become. With this post, I am basically trying to demonstrate that there are people who are using their skills and talents to try and solve homelessness challenges where they can. If we had the desire to illuminate poverty we could rather quickly. There’s so many things that we could do. But, we try to determine who does and doesn’t deserve it while many of us say that we follow a God who shines God‘s light on the just and the unjust alike. I don’t know if you watched any of the video from the Homeless Neighbor Memorial or not. But, there were all types of people at the memorial. You may have even heard some of the protesters in the background yelling at our mayor. Every single one of us felt like we were doing the right thing. I think individually none of us were doing the real right thing, whatever that is. But collectively,I believe the Spirit of God was at work through all of us with and without our permission saying what needed to be said, doing what needed to be done, and hopefully becoming who we need to become in order to create a society where there’s no longer a need for a homeless memorial because all life will be seen as being of inestimable value.

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