Friday, May 21, 2010

Homelessness Enforcers

We have finished another year of taking dinner from our suburban church to First Lutheran in downtown Ft. Lauderdale. What have we learned?

To always take more dinner than you think you'll need. When we returned to First Lutheran back in September, we ran out of food. We had enough for everyone who was on time, but not everyone is on time. It broke my heart to say to the latecomers, "We have no food. No, not even any milk." People ate every scrap: all the bread (we usually have leftovers) and even all of my vegetarian option. Since then, we've brought extra food.

We've seen larger crowds throughout the year. Is this because of the economic downturn? I doubt it. Most of the homeless who come to our dinners have been homeless quite awhile. When I talk to them, I am forced to reflect on the institutional structures that keep people homeless.

One of the most obvious homelessness enforcers in our area is the lack of low cost or medium cost housing, a total lack. I've noticed that even in the smaller South Carolina towns that I return to as I visit friends, there's not as much affordable housing as there used to be. Many cities like mine have demolished any sort of shelter structure too. If you're a woman with children, you may be able to stay at churches on a rotating basis. But gone are the large, gymnasium like shelters of the 80's. Perhaps it's for the best; those shelters were horrors. But at least people had somewhere to go when the night turned rainy.

Another homelessness enforcer is the lack of care for mental conditions. It doesn't take long talking to some people to realize why they won't be holding down a job that might earn them enough money to rent a room from someone. Many of these folks are living in an alternate reality.

A scarier homelessness enforcer is the lack of jobs for folks that have fewer skills. In this job market where the highly skilled can't find work, the future looks even bleaker for all of us. It's bleakest for those with less education and less skills.

Perhaps the largest homelessness enforcer is the attitudes of people who have never shared a meal with the homeless. I'm always startled by the harsh attitudes of some of my students. I do my best to do some consciousness raising, but I'm fighting a losing battle.

Jesus was on to a winning plan with his ministry that started and ended at the dinner table. When we share a meal with someone, it's harder to demonize the larger groups of which our dinner companions are a part.

Perhaps I'll do some thinking about how to bring more students with me to the First Lutheran dinners next year. When I got into teaching, I thought I would change the world by teaching its future leaders. I've spent the last 22 years teaching writing and reading skills. Perhaps it's time to broaden my subject matter.

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