Issue of Many Facets

In the excellent local documentary, “The Night of the Unsheltered Homeless,” Pastor Rob Bryceson of The Gathering House at Garland and Post made a great point (1:11 in the video) about homelessness that many in this argument seem have lost sight of:

What’s interesting when I talk to everybody is that we all agree what the answer is. We all agree that the answer is not people living in destitution, in poverty, and in filth on our streets in the cold, leaving needles and human waste. We all don’t want that. We think what we want is people living in safe, clean, managed shelters and decent homes getting their life back together and becoming a contributing member of society and not staying an addict. I don’t care whether you’re left or right. I don’t care if you’re businessman or you’re a social worker. We all agree that that’s the goal. What we can’t seem to do is sit down with each other and talk about how to achieve that goal. Because we climb the mountain from different sides.

“We climb the mountain from different sides.” 

A great deal of controversy over the problem laid out by Pastor Bryceson stems from the polarized views of the homeless that the media feeds us. Famously, Nadine Woodward narrowly won election as Mayor of the City of Spokane in 2019 in part by stoking fear and loathing of the homeless by posting “Seattle is Dying,” the hourlong polemic by KOMO TV in Seattle that, based on anecdotes and endless video of homeless encampments, characterizes all homeless people as drug addicted or mentally ill. For Woodward, apparently, the problem of homelessness was to be addressed solely by law enforcement and incarceration. That was her side of the mountain. 

But homelessness is not one problem. It is several problems that intertwine. Most of us see the issue like a blind man “sees” an elephant. It depends upon which part of the elephant we encounter. For some, like our Mayor, the picture of homelessness is the scantily clad, skinny, tattooed, scary guy walking on the downtown streets gesticulating and talking to people only he can see. For others, it is people urinating, defecating, and shooting up in downtown alleys or on the sidewalk, making a mess that frightens away potential customers. For others the image is one of clustered tents under bridges, outside City Hall or in the parks. The least seen and least iconic face of the Spokane homeless are the men, women, and children who have lost their means of support, cannot pay the rent, cannot figure out how to get help, and wind up desperate and on the streets. Each homeless individual, each homeless family, has a unique story.

Homeless people have one thing in common: once you’re homeless the barriers to getting back on your feet are suddenly very high. Each of the things that make it possible to function in our modern world, things that most of us take almost for granted, are suddenly out of reach. Without secure shelter with an address, a cell phone, and means of transportation, your day is taken up with the very most basic needs—staying warm, guarding the few belongings you still possess, finding food (and how do you prepare it?), and just physically getting to whatever shelter or agency might offer help—or might not. Imagine all that occupying your mind and THEN facing the daunting task of making yourself presentable enough in both appearance and odor to apply for a job. What do you use as an address, phone number, or email address on the application? How do you get to the job on time while holding the rest of your life together? While you’re at work, where do you safely park the shopping cart that might contain enough bedding to stay warm that night? That some might take solace in street drugs—just to forget for a while—should not come as a surprise.

That level of life uncertainly and precariousness is frightening to contemplate. None of us wants to imagine ourselves walking a block in those tattered shoes. It is human nature to mentally distance ourselves from such fears: homeless people must have “made bad choices” or they are drug addicted, or they’re mentally ill, and, after all, I am not any of those things. Like the blind man, we tend to characterize the whole elephant by the part of the animal we happen to encounter—or the part that is easiest to “see”.

It costs money and requires careful administration and oversight for it to work, but the first step in dealing with homelessness is to provide secure shelter and basic support, not just warming centers. That needs follow-up with affordable housing, not the high margin upper middle class and upper class housing we are so fond of building based on market forces. At the same time we have to start dealing with addiction as the disease that it is instead of relying solely on the penal system in the hope of sweeping the problem out of sight. 

As housing costs rise into the stratosphere every large city faces the multi-faceted problem of people who have no means to find shelter, a problem reminiscent of the cities of Dickensian England.

There are individuals and groups in Spokane who are working very hard, pulling together, climbing the mountain from different sides, trying to work together to address the problem of homelessness. It behooves us to learn of these efforts, take part, donate, get involved—and support those who are working hard to make things better. A good start can be had by watching the local documentary video below (also referenced above) and checking out others of the documentaries at MyRoadLeadsHome.org.

Keep to the high ground,


P.S. Another quote from Pastor Rob Bryceson of The Gathering House from this documentary (1:07):

Wow you know it’s interesting to me is because I’m a pastor I sit with groups of other church leaders. I’m in a group right now sponsored by Whitworth that sits with other pastors discussing how could we unite together and use our resources of people, time, and money to help a major social problem in the city. They wonder what to do. In the meantime I’m in another meeting where the mayor is speaking—actually in our church—on a women’s panel event and she is saying, ‘Do you know who’s not showing up to deal with these problems? It’s the faith community. Where is the faith community? I would love to talk to the faith community,’ she said. And meanwhile the business community is having a hard time talking to the front line workers.

Pastor Bryceson, it seems to me, represents the outward-looking, socially responsible Christianity in which I was brought up. I may differ on some points of theology, but I understand these people. For me they stand in stark contrast to the predominantly inward-looking, insular, Second Amendment, anti-abortion, and End Times obsessed congregations like those of Matt Shea and Ken Peters, who, instead of working for the common good, spend their time demonstrating outside Planned Parenthood and demonstrating against vaccinations and masks.