A wrong idea has taken root in the world — that some lives are less valuable than other lives. There’s a lot of concern regarding finding good solutions for those who are houseless in our community. It’s interesting to have these conversations at a time when Christians remember Mary and Joseph about to give birth to Jesus seeking shelter and being told there was no room for them.
We need to have healthy debates about the best solutions for our houseless neighbors and for our community — just as we would about education choices for our children, open space protection for our parks, and affordable housing that might help prevent houselessness in the first place.
What we ask our community to change is the way we talk about our houseless neighbors in demeaning and dehumanizing ways. We ask you, our community, to change seeing and treating our houseless neighbors as if their lives are less important than our lives — as if houselessness is the only thing that defines them.
A question we keep hearing is, “What do we do about homeless people?” as if they are a problem to be solved and not people who deserve love and respect. What if we asked, “How can we find solutions where everyone has a chance to flourish?”
An underlying assumption lurks in this rhetoric, implying that some people choose to be homeless. No one chooses to be homeless.
Roughly 90% of those experiencing homelessness find themselves in that situation due to unforeseen life circumstances. They are typically houseless for less than a year and then thrive again through access to available supports.
Roughly 10% experience homelessness as a chronic condition.
The chronically houseless are often talked about in dehumanizing ways. Many are living with a mental illness. A person struggling with schizophrenia, for example, doesn’t choose to live with that illness and deserves our compassion and not our judgment.
Many who are chronically houseless suffer from post-traumatic stress because of repeated traumatic events in their lives. Trauma is not a choice. Imagine if we had the kind of compassion that stood in awe at the trauma and burdens that those who are houseless have to carry, rather than standing in judgment over how they carry it.
Substance abuse is often a factor. Some will argue that’s a choice but substance abuse is often an attempt to cope with devastating mental illness or trauma. Dealing with mental health issues or sobriety are hard enough when you are not living on the streets and next to impossible when you lack support, stability and resources.
The answer to the question, “What do we do about this?” is easy. We offer as much compassion as possible. Everyone deserves a warm and safe place to sleep. Mahatma Gandhi reminds us, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
Father Greg Boyle founded Homeboy industries, which is the largest and most successful gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the world. Father Boyle believes what changes people is not efforts to rescue or save, but kinship. He said, “The measure of our compassion is our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with others.”
As we continue searching for good solutions and sharing valid concerns, we ask our community to remember that those experiencing homelessness are not a problem to be solved but our neighbors whose lives are just as important as each of ours.