The Bible, as usual, gives a mixed answer to the former. On the one hand, there are repeated entreaties to aid the stranger: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless. “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done” (Proverbs 19:17). On the other hand, 2 Thessalonians 3: 10-12, it says: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”
So does that mean receiving food, drink, and other aid is conditional on one’s ability or willingness to work? The answer to the latter question is equally equivocal.
As reported at ocbailnow.com in 2018, “Kimberly Sandoval, a member of Santa Ana’s homeless population, summed up the problem. ‘Stop criminalizing us because that’s what they’re doing. It’s not illegal to be homeless, but everything we do is illegal.’ At the time, Sandoval had been homeless for about 15 years and had just been ticketed for having spare bicycle parts.” Bicycling while homeless. That’s a new one. So it’s OK to be homeless per se, but not to do anything about it on one’s own. Noted.
Why does it seem as if society–as represented by law enforcement, social workers, and the judiciary–wants the homeless to demonstrate their independence and self-reliance, then support a system that smothers self-reliance? People are forced to be self-reliant in spite of the law. Maybe that’s why Charles Dickens had his Mr. Bumble say, “The law is an ass.”
That’s the thing: there don’t need to be laws against homelessness–just laws against things homeless people do. Anti-encampment laws. No public bathrooms, especially between sunset and sunrise. No parking between sunset and sunrise. No sleeping in your car. Folks in the South will tell you that while Jim Crow is no longer the law, it has never really gone away– just gone under deep cover. As a character on WKRP in Cincinnati once said about racism, “We’ve cut down the tree, but the roots go pretty deep.”
Hanging over all this is the specter of disease. COVID may be done as a pandemic, but there are still breakouts here and there to be put out. And historically, the poor and homeless are seen as primary carriers, despite there being no evidence that any disease has ever favored any particular class. Germs and viruses are equal opportunity infectors. Nevertheless, this further complicates an already fraught situation. NIMBYs will NIMBY and fingers will be pointed–whoever makes the best sound bite or biggest donation will win. Win what? Who knows.
If you truly want people to get back on their feet, you can’t keep knocking them down for showing the slightest degree of self-empowerment. If you do that, eventually, even the most strong-willed will just give up and resign themselves to existence at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. You have to show that their work does pay off; there have to be meaningful, tangible rewards tied to the effort–even if it’s just a gift card because that gift card could mean the difference between having food and having to go without for a week or more.
Of course, you’re going to have malingerers–Reagan’s so-called “Welfare queens.” Some people prefer living off food stamps, handouts, and shelters to getting work. But you can’t use that as an excuse not to give others a helping hand. We’re a large enough, democratic enough country that we can help everyone, just as Charlie Chaplin’s barber would have us do in this famous speech from The Great Dictator: “I should like to help everyone, if possible — Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another.” He goes on to say this: “In this world, there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, and has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness is hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent, and all will be lost.”
Sounds like our world right now, doesn’t it? And yet, those words were written 83 years ago, on the verge of America’s entry into World War II to defeat fascism here and abroad. Which is why this column. This is why, no matter how faint-hearted or exhausted, we can’t give up. We must not give up. There’s work to be done, and we need all hands on deck.
And so I say once again: Better days are coming…if we work for them.