I am sitting on the steps of the two-family flat that serves as our parish office. I am waiting for Jack to crawl out from underneath the porch next door so I can talk to him.
Jack (not his real name) lives under the back porch of the building next door. He is homeless and he has what is called a “nest” in the crawl space. The building next door is also a two-family flat, but it is currently unoccupied, as the owner is rehabbing it for future residents. Unfortunately, he is taking his time about it, and it has been empty for at least three years with no end of the rehabbing in sight.
Jack appears to be happy about it. It means he can live under the back porch unmolested. Jack is homeless, and the back porch is a near-perfect location for a nest: hidden from sight, quiet, isolated from foot traffic, safe.
Of course, it means he is also subject to extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter, as well as bites from mice, rats, and insects. He has no kitchen to cook meals, no fridge for the food he collects from begging or acquires from pantries, and no bathroom with toilet. He has no place to poop, except our parish campus.
You see, apparently, Jack wanders up the back alley in the night, sneaks onto our property on the other side of the church, and poops in our campus. We find his load dumped here and there, complete with used toilet paper, nearly every morning when we inspect the property. Which means that one of us on staff or on the vestry must get a shovel and scoop up the poop to dispose it.
Obviously, this cannot go on. It is a serious health hazard as well as incredibly unsightly and offensive. It’s not conducive to the communal life of a parish…or any other kind of communal gathering, for that matter.
So, that’s why I am out here, waiting for Jack to come out from under the porch. We need to talk. He needs to find a different living arrangement than what he is living now, and we folks here at St. John’s simply don’t want to call the police on him. The police usually arrest people like Jack and send them on to another neighborhood where it starts all over again. It’s kicking Jack down the road, so to say, like he’s the proverbial can. What’s more, the department of the police that handles these sorts of things used to be called the “Community Resource Officer” and today it is called “Property Nuisance Officer”. So, their response to the homeless has gone from community outreach to property nuisance. Not an attitude in keeping with the Way of Jesus. But he is also pooping in our yard.
Rev. Amy and I concluded that we should try helping the guy out with some professional assistance before we involve the police. There are some social services that can help Jack get back on his feet/assist with mental healthcare/whatever before we take the last step and call the police. Amy+ has a friend in social services who has been kind enough to step in and help. She said that her organization is stretched to the max, like many other social service agencies, but she will see what she can do.
As I sit here, waiting for Jack to appear, I think about a chat I had on the ‘net with a fellow who published a meme about public assistance to the poor. It was a photo of bear cubs standing at the open window of a car as the people inside fed them cookies and crackers. The caption said, “Please do not feed the bears…it creates a dependent population, unable to fend for themselves…. Like welfare programs?”
I took exception to the meme, as it compares the poor and the troubled to animals. I engaged the fellow who posted this meme and discussed with him how ill-informed the meme is relative to the attitude that assistance corrupts, and that there is an underlying contempt in the meme for the people who need assistance.
We have vilified the poor and troubled in our society and have contempt for them. This is wrong, and not in keeping with the Way. We once had compassion and mercy for them; now it is contempt, blaming them for their situation rather than understanding their situation. We think assistance exacerbates their poverty situation, and I don’t understand why people think that. Research by MIT, the World Bank, Un. of California, Rutgers, and the Un. of Kentucky demonstrates that the “corrupting influence” of welfare to the poor is a myth: it does exactly the opposite – it helps them out of poverty*.
Yet we are on a warpath against the poor, cutting them off from the very systems that will help them. This is wrong-headed and will make things worse, not better.
So, we here at St. John’s are going totally Anglican and looking for the via media regarding Jack: let’s get him in contact with our social services friend and get him out from under a porch and back up on his feet first before we call the police. It is going to take some work, for in his current mental state he may not be real cooperative, and even though he may not be mentally stable, he does have civil rights as a citizen and he has human worth as a child of God. But we are going to give him our best shot, because anyone who can’t even find a place to defecate with dignity needs some help. Remember the Three Rules of The Micah Society: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
*See “The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor”; Oct, 20, 2015; NYT; http://nyti.ms/1Kmi2Qr