As the great Kevin Bacon once said, “dancing is not a crime!” and neither should be homelessness. Homelessness, like dancing, is a part of life for some people. Sure, it isn’t as fun as dancing but it is just as unnecessary to outlaw homelessness today as it was to outlaw dancing in Footloose.
Twenty-one cities have successfully prohibited publicly feeding those in need and thirty-one cities have tried. In these twenty-one cities, the laws about where and when you are able to distribute food are so strict that it is essentially impossible to legally give food away.
Admittedly, these cities have very valid concerns about the quality of food which is being distrusted. Just because serving homemade egg salad sandwiches out of your car seems like a nice gesture doesn’t make it a good idea in the middle of summer. It is extremely difficult to regulate the food quality when there are too many cooks in the outdoor kitchen. Although food quality is a concern, other options for homeless people include dumpster diving or panhandling enough money for something off the dollar menu.
At Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission all the men in our Overcomer program either have or are working towards earning their ServeSafe Certificate for kitchen safety. The meals prepared at Sunday Breakfast are safe and healthy because the men in our program have been trained to do just that. Also, the certificate makes the men very marketable when it comes to gaining full time employment.
But the restrictions go further than just food; many cities have started erecting barriers that will physically prevent homeless people from living in the public spaces that they have become accustomed to. A patch of ground doesn’t seem appealing but it might if it were YOUR patch of ground. Homeless people by definition do not have homes. So why are these cities taking away the closest thing they have to a stable environment?
The answer is simple: it isn’t safe. In a large city in New Jersey, underpasses are being cleared and closed off in order to prevent the homeless individuals from living there. A representative of the city explained that “they’re not healthy situations to be living in.” Yes, living underneath an underpass with the ever present car fumes is not safe. But it might be the safest place you can find. These people don’t live there because they thought it would be cozy, they live there because it is their best option.
City officials are operating under the assumption that preventing people from sleeping comfortably (sort of) will force them to try harder when searching for a job and thus find permanent housing. Yes, a desire to change is a crucial part of the rebuilding process but you cannot force someone to want something by making their life miserable.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the opinion held by these cities is unfounded:
Individuals do not remain homeless because of food-sharing programs; people remain homeless for reasons such as: lack of affordable housing, lack of job opportunity, mental health or physical disability. With all of the existing barriers that prevent individuals from finding work, earning an adequate wage, affording a safe home and caring for themselves, remaining homeless is rarely a choice at all.
The belief that the problem will go away if we make it difficult is also held by many companies and individuals which use anti-homeless landscaping to prevent people from sleeping on their property. These devices vary from simple boards placed perpendicular on park benches, cages around air vents, to metal spikes facing upward near doorways.
I think we can all agree that the goal is to end homelessness. The fences, spikes, and laws are all in a (albeit misguided) attempt to end a problem that plagues our nation. The cities aren’t being heartless, they simply do not understand the whole situation. You can’t change someone’s heart with spikes and fences. Many homeless men and women feel abandoned by their loved ones. It is the job of Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, and the 300 Rescue Missions nationwide, to give hope and love to those who need it. Only when they see their own self-worth will they be willing to take the help that is given to them.
When this life is over the Lord will look at the righteous and say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you game me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me as a guest, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Mt 25:34-36) He did not say, “I was homeless and you erected a fence.” We are not called to build barriers (physically or mentally) between ourselves and those who need help. It is our calling to feed, clothe, and encourage.
And this is why am I asking for compassion. Compassion to help those in need instead of actively preventing people from living their lives. It isn’t enough to not put up the anti-homeless spikes. We must be the best of us who hear the call to action and help. This can be done through volunteering your time, hosting a food drive, or monetary donations so that Sunday Breakfast can continue to give hope to the hopeless.