Community Voices

AT HOME WITH THE HOMELESS: Is homelessness considered a sin or a crime?

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 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.

3 replies »

  1. Dear Father Kriz: Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough response. I don’t usually highlight individual stories because I could write about specific cases until the end of the world. I’m trying to address all that underlies our problem with homelessness, which was the point of the column. Historically, it was” considered a crime to be stateless. Now, like racism, the attack is more underhanded–targeting homeless people’s survival strategies. It was a subtle point, but one I strove to make clear. And yes, I tend to be provocative. All good writing should be, else what’s the point?
    Thanks for the good words–Andrew

  2. As Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him,
    “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
    Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” — John 9:1-3

    The most recent article in FO’s series “At Home with the Homeless” continues to be provocatively titled. However, I do believe it misses the point on all kinds of levels.

    First of all, if we choose to do nothing or next to nothing or the people sleeping on our streets, we by definition choose to leave them there, diminishing our own quality of life in the process.

    Further last year, I watched with my own eyes a thoroughly embarrassed social worker explain to a homeless mother of a three year old, that she was going to have to wait for 10 days (!) before she was even going to get an initial interview to see if she was going to be eligible for assistance.

    While he was telling her this, _outside_ the “outreach center” in which he worked — for some reason these pre-initial interviews are _never_ done _inside_ _sitting at a desk_ but _outside in the elements_ — while the three of us, the homeless mother, the embarrassed outreach worker and I were, dancing in the shadeless afternoon sun, the three year old was happily running around us literally “chasing butterflies.”

    Immediately after this Dante-meets-Kafka horror was over, I got the woman and her child a hotel room for at least the coming weekend (it had been a Thursday), and screamed across most of Northern OC, and … within 18 hours, she was given that initial interview and found to be eligible for assistance.

    Afterwards though I was told by one of the higher ups in the agency that did the interview that I had to understand that there were 32 other homeless families ahead of her in line for assistance.

    I called the mother to tell her this, and from her hotel room she quickly made the necessary phone calls and got a friend to take her and her family in while she sorted herself out. Telling the truth to someone can in fact “set one free…”

    The final indignity in the story was that later that week, when she called the assistance center about her case, she was told that since she was no longer homeless … but sleeping on her friend’s couch, she was no longer eligible for further assistance but that if she found herself and her family on the street again, they could re-apply … (beginning the whole crazy process again).

    A second story: Later that summer, I took an older homeless man, who had clear trouble breathing … he couldn’t take ten steps without stopping to take a break … to St. Jude’s Emergency room, and after being checked out, he was discharged. Neither I nor he knew then the magic words “I have no safe place to go,” which he needed to say _before_ signing any discharge papers, which _could_ have forced the hospital, any U.S. hospital from discharging him.

    Again, I screamed, this time there in the ER. How was this possible? How was it possible that St. Jude’s could not take him in, since it ran a Recuperative Care Unit with the Illumination Foundation ON ST. JUDE’S OWN CAMPUS _expressly for this purpose_ (and if it was full, then there was the 45 bed Illumination Foundation’s recuperative care unit at the famously almost always under-utilized Fullerton Navigation Center). But supposedly he needed to be “referred” to St. Jude’s own facility, on the campus where he was standing.

    We were told that St. Jude’s could set up an appointment “with his cardiologist.” I told the social worker that he’ll be “waiting for that cardiology appointment _sleeping in a box.”

    Since I thought I could at least do what I did with the mother with the three year old, after a while I didn’t press the point further. But then to my horror when I tried to check the homeless man who had trouble breathing in a hotel room, I found that since he did not have an ID, the hotel would not let him be checked in, even if I paid the hotel room or him.

    I asked him I he’d like to try another hospital. By then he was thoroughly done and asked me I’d just take him to the train tracks that pass through Fullerton. I did so, and though I’ve heard from other homeless folks that he is still alive, I’ve never seen him at St. Philip’s again.

    The point of my two stories is this: Rather than debating whether homeless people are lazy or criminals, why not at least help those homeless people who are neither.

    There is simply no reason at all for families with small kids to be kept on our streets. None.

    And if the County comes to think that the parents are negligent or lazy then at least take the kids away from them – SAVE / THINK OF AT LEAST THE KIDS. And certainly the fear that this would in fact happen would make the parents work extremely hard so that this would not happen.

    Similarly, there is simply no reason at all for there to be any seniors at all sleeping on our streets. Every one of them is eligible or Social Security, Disability and Health Care benefits if only they could be somewhere where they could apply and immediately receive them.

    What if we simply made the commitment that there be FAMILIES WITH NO CHILDREN and NO SENIORS sleeping on our streets?

    By the 2022 PIT Count, there were 94 families comprising 251 individuals who were homeless in OC and there were 418 persons who were over 62 years of age (Seniors) and homeless as well.

    So if we at least focused on these two populations, we could legitimately reduce homelessness in the County by 11.6% and remove the most clearly vulnerable populations from our streets.

    And then we could return to our pointless-to-evil “parlor games” debating over beers or brandies and cigars whether our County’s homeless population is “merely lazy” or “criminal” without doing much of anything in any case.

    • Wow – Kris – I wish you and Barbara Johnson would go and tour the homeless shelters and see if they are being operated properly. Even though paid for by taxpayers they are refusing any tours. It is so disturbing that we seem to be throwing lots of money at the problems but seeming to get such inadequate results even from the “help” that has been put in place.