The police dropped Eric on the doorstep of the church. He immediately set himself to work cleaning Hurricane Irma debris from the yard. He speaks with a slur, thinks out loud in rambling sentences, and suffers lapses in short-term memory. And, of course, he is homeless.
The police officer was matter-of-fact when he dropped Eric off. Eric weathered the storm in a Red Cross shelter and needs to be off the streets before curfew. “These are his knives,” the officer said. “You might want to keep these for him.”
As I type, Eric is using a leaf blower to clear the driveway and sidewalk. He’s a nice guy, very industrious, confused but harmless, courteous and grateful. If he lived nearby, he’d be a great church member. But homelessness is an overwhelming burden on churches and individuals. Even if I could convince the church to house this one, they would soon be overcome by the cost of all those who follow.
Why did the police so nonchalantly drop him off? We housed 35 people during Hurricane Irma. The police dropped off one homeless person who was being released from the hospital. Of course, we took him in. Another — this one having one leg amputated, another he cannot stand on, and a battered wheelchair that he propels backward with his toeless foot — slept outside the church the next morning, knowing that somebody would eventually find him and help him get back in his wheelchair.
“You have to do something!” Go ahead, scream it. I certainly do. I scream it to hospitals, police officers, church members, homeless assistance agencies and the homeless themselves. It is the height of cruelty that our society would leave the mentally ill and physically helpless on the streets, but guess what, America: That’s what we do!
Here in South Florida, every shelter is full and all affordable housing is taken. Communities pass laws making it illegal to sleep outdoors or to feed the homeless en masse, because doing so attracts more.
I spent hours after the hurricane shuffling these two homeless gentlemen to locations where they perceived they could survive. Then the police dropped off Eric and Bob came begging for money, swearing that his death is imminent and that I am his absolute last hope. And at midnight, the police called me again. I hoped they were taking Eric off my hands, but no such luck: “Are you still housing homeless people?”
What would you do? During the hurricane, We provided housing for a couple of days — though, to be clear, most of my guests were not homeless, just storm-shelter challenged. We accepted two homeless strangers from the local police into that mix. In the past, I have maxed out personal credit cards trying to get people on their feet, only to see the investment frittered away on the complexities of homeless life. I’ve heard a dozen suggestions on what I should do, and I’ve seen a dozen well-meaning volunteers throw up their hands and surrender the assignment. I don’t want suggestions: I want an address of where to drop them off, or the number to call that gets them picked up and taken to the help they need.
I have no idea what Eric is going to do when he finally leaves. I still don’t know what to tell Bob when he comes by. I’m not taking any more suggestions, but I’m completely willing to surrender the assignment. That sounds arrogant, but the point is, I can’t spend more time pursuing another suggestion. Instead, I’m accepting volunteers who will themselves spend that time and pursue that solution.
I know how people can become homeless because I’m usually just a few paychecks away from the streets myself. Most of us are. I have seen church members evicted from substandard housing and spending a fortune on hotels or staying with relatives and friends, spending many months looking for more substandard housing to start the cycle all over again.
Land of the free. Home of the brave. We ignore homeless dignity and crush homeless pride, and they’ll know we are christians by our cross, by our cross! Yes, they’ll know we are christians by our cross!
I can here people saying “Aw, that’s so sad!” “Who is this guy to guilt us like this?” “But doesn’t he know about Lewis Center? The Salvation Army? Children & Family services?” A day on the telephone does not solve the problem, no matter who you call. I dread seeing the homeless. I loathe the prospect of spending the day walking them though basic services or nagging them for being uncooperative. They have used me up — my patience, my money, my good graces with the church. The best I can do is to treat them with dignity, offer such food as I can find in the kitchen, let them use the shower and ignore them when I find them sleeping in the church yard.
What do you think? Greatest nation in the world? You bet! Land of opportunity! Grab those bootstraps, work hard, and pull yourself out of the gutter and off the streets.
Greatest religion in the world? You bet! Love your neighbor, welcome the stranger, lend to those who ask of you, defend the poor.
Is this a Christian Nation? You bet! More churches and Bibles than any nation in the world! Great health care facilities, and no one is turned away — though they are absolutely dumped to the curb when the crisis has ended.
I don’t want this ministry! I don’t want to be the only church in town who gives a tinker’s dam about people on the streets! I don’t want to spend so much on so few for so little return! Feel free to take this cup from me, to take over the homeless ministries at Tropical Sands Christian Church! You can’t use all the rooms, or spend all the money, or neglect other assignments, but if you deal with homelessness, I’ll deal with addiction and spiritual growth. Please, show me how it’s done! Because there are far too many homeless — and they do not want to be homeless! — and far too few resources addressing the problem — even in this Christian Nation.