"Local homeless population doesn't fit the stereotypes" was the large print subhead of an article in the Empire last December about Juneau's homeless. The article went on to personalize homelessness and some of the realities that cause it.
Hunger and homelessness have been with us for thousands of years. Psalm 146:5 asks a question that is very relevant for us today as we deal with those on the margins of society: "Who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry?"
I care about the answer as one who knows that God places great value on each and every person. I care as a pastor who serves a congregation with a busy food pantry and actions that make a difference in the lives of people in our community. As president of the Glory Hole Board of Directors, I am keenly aware of how this wonderful place of last resort seeks to serve people with dignity. I care because Matthew 25:40 directs us to "care for the least of these who are members of my family." I care because members of my own family have been homeless and hungry because of the realities of their brain disabilities.
Homelessness and hunger are issues affecting many youth, adults and families. Unforeseen circumstances such as a brain disorder, sudden illness, divorce, alcoholism, the loss of a job or a low paying job can throw one out into the streets. Being homeless is hard work. There are constant survival issues related to food, housing, one's own safety and other hard circumstances. Stereotypes and labels held by others only add to the pain and further diminish self-esteem.
Those of us who have never experienced homelessness need to be very careful about how we interpret homelessness. There are many expectations placed on those seeking help that we have never experienced and never want to experience.
There are too many punitive solutions promoted by society that significantly complicate the lives of those who are most vulnerable. There are rules and regulations related to low income housing that middle class people have never experienced and don't want to experience. For example, people with brain disorders often lose housing for exhibiting symptoms of their illness that are beyond their control.
Accessing appropriate help is not easy. Too often, the people most in need of services become so disillusioned and distrustful that they give up. In too many cases, our prisons become expensive storehouses for good people who do not receive appropriate and necessary intervention.
I frequently find examples of generosity among the hungry and homeless that are a great inspiration to me. One of the most frequent comments made by people at our food pantry is, "I don't want to take too much. I want to leave something for the next person." If only such an attitude were more prevalent in society as a whole. Be prepared to learn from the people it is all too easy to stereotype.
I celebrate the many examples of individuals, businesses, organizations and churches working together to address homelessness in our community. Homelessness is a hard circumstance. Let's work together to expect appropriate help and intervention so our homeless can live with the real hope of a home and the gift of self-esteem. May our concern for dignified justice and food for all unite us as a community who "cares for the least of these" in a most generous way.
Larry Rorem is the pastor at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.