Housing and Home, Mourning and Hope

(Sermon Preached at All Souls New London Unitarian Universalist Congregation on 9/25/16)

The person in man is a thing in distress;
it feels cold and is always looking
for a warm shelter.

But those (who are) warmly wrapped in social consideration are unaware of this.

(F)or every person there should be enough room, enough freedom to plan
the use of one’s time, the opportunity to reach ever higher levels of
attention, some solitude, some silence…

 If this is the good, then modern societies, even democratic ones, seem to
go about as far as it is possible to go in the direction of evil….
What man
needs is silence and warmth; what he is given is an icy pandemonium.

From “Human Personality,” in Simone Weil, Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Sian Miles (New York: Grove Press, 1986). p. 59.

Imagine you have been living outdoors for much of the last few years. Maybe when the weather is especially extreme a family member takes pity for the night, or maybe you know how to trade your food stamps for a few nights on someone’s couch. There is a homeless shelter, yes, but your abuser is staying there. Or you can’t handle the shelter’s rules and the press of bodies in such a small space.

So, much of the time, you live outside: in the woods in Waterford, under the pier in New London, in an unheated log shack in Groton, under the Gold Star bridge, in the remote corners of the college campus. Then, one fateful day, someone shows up at your campsite with an unexpected offer:

If you want it, there is a program that will subsidize your rent and help you find an landlord who will rent to you. You don’t have to live outside anymore.

What would go through your mind?

Hope? Disbelief?

Fear?  Apprehension?

 

Hope again.  Sheer, Terrifying, Risky Hope.

 

As move-in day approaches you might start to wonder:

will all the other people living outside be able to find places of their own?

Will they think I left them behind?

If not them, who will be there for me if I get into trouble?

What if I get my own place and I am still depressed / addicted / unable to afford what I need?

What if I get my own place and my children still don’t want to speak to me?

 

What will I miss about living outside? Ha – what a stupid question! Nothing, I have nothing, I have nothing to lose.

 

Although, now that you ask…

 

I will miss dawn rising over those trees early every morning.

I will miss the deer that bed down with their young on that hill.

I will miss being the “captain” of this campsite and knowing I had a role to play.

Now that you ask –

yes, I will miss these things.

Maybe I will get some houseplants. Or a beta fish.

…..

That’s a composite of conversations I’ve had with dozens of people over the last three years. Those of us who work in homeless services – at the Homeless Hospitality Center, at the Covenant Shelter, at SMHA and Norwich Human services and TVCCA and Reliance House and Safe Futures and Sound Community Services – we are in the middle of an effort to find those who have been homeless the longest – especially those living outside – and make this simple offer: do you want housing?

Yet there is a certain asymmetry in the way we talk about homelessness. HOMElessness is the problem, and HOUSING is the solution. Catch that? It’s a small slip – from HOME to HOUSING – but it is worth probing.

Home is something more than housing, and though it shows up in non-profit slogans and campaigns, making a home is not actually on the menu of services. Affordable housing is hard enough to provide – surely home is more than any nonprofit or state agency can promise.

And still the gap between housing and home is where the conversation inevitably turns when we offer a rent subsidy to someone staying in a tent: yes, I want a roof over my head, but what might I stand to lose in this transition? Or what have I lost before that I am afraid to lose again?

 

Consider for a minute the figure of the “homeless person” as it appears in story or on television. The stereotypical Homeless Person is unwashed, clothed in rags, mentally ill, and panhandling. Like most stereotypes, this one has some basis in fact – and I have known people who resembled that man at one stage or another. But it is very possible the man in the story has had an apartment for a while, with a lease and keys and everything. At the same time, many people experiencing homelessness will present very differently – you would be hard pressed to pick them out of a crowd.

And this is very important: part of the stereotype of the homeless person is the sense that his or her problems are so complex we don’t know where to start or where it will end. Let’s say you decided to try anyway, and you didn’t have the benefit of experience in homeless services to guide you. Most of us would well enough relying on common sense and conscience to start with: a meal, a night in shelter, then line up mental health treatment and addiction services. Employment or disability income might be medium-term goals. But an apartment, you might think, is months or years down the road.

It turns out, though, that most of the time one should try to start with secure housing. Despite the enormous logistical challenges, all the evidence suggests that if affordable housing is available and quickly put in place then every other goal – from mental health to addiction to employment and criminal justice compliance – is many times more likely to succeed. Think about how powerful that is for a minute: that keys and a lease can be so crucial to someone’s recovery journey, and that our cultural instinct is to deny someone those very things until they are further along on their journey.

So when homeless providers are being very careful not to reinforce the stereotype of the hard-to-fix homeless person, we say the people staying in shelter or living outside are in a state of housing crisis, and the solution to that crisis is – HOUSING! It’s neat and helpful and true.

 

And still: there is something in the word “homelessness” not captured by the phrase “housing crisis.” Something the stereotypical shabby figure of story represents that I am not ready to dismiss just yet – stigma duly noted.

What if being without a HOME is a distinct crisis state, overlapping but not quite coinciding with the lack of housing)? Because in popular usage, “homelessness” names more than a lack of shelter or housing. It references uprootedness, deep alienation, and unfathomable vulnerability. In popular discourse, Homelessness names a state so beyond our imagining that many of us experience a kind of panicked moral annoyance at the visibility of (apparently) homeless people in our public spaces.

Have you seen the anti-panhandling signs in downtown New London? They read “If you are physically threatened OR asked for money, please call the police” which is (1) clumsy syntax at best and (2) fear-mongering false equivalence at worst. And this morning our  our local paper’s headline is preoccupied with the problem of “Unsavory Characters” and “vagrants” downtown. Note: presumed city residents are characterized in these terms, while local business owners or “merchants” are cited as authorities on what the city requires. While the article describes many needed interventions and real public challenges, its language both reflects and reinforces the sense that the dispossessed and destitute live in categorically different circumstances from the rest of us, we good citizens and property-owners who share our revulsion of the sick and the poor.

I must note in this context that relentless state budget cuts to human and social services threaten all the progress my agency and our partners are making to end long-term homelessness in our region. Many of us are feeling precarious about our “campaign to end chronic homelessness” while we watch the tools we have used to approach this victory disappear in the wake of our progress. The decimation at the state level of mental health services, addiction treatment, eviction prevention funds, and other key supports for the destitute is the true backdrop for this local drama of “unsavory characters” vs. merchants.

I have known people who DO wear “homelessness” as an identity long after they are housed. While many who pass through shelter see themselves as only temporarily off course, those who are “chronically homeless” often identify with a broader experience or community of dispossessed persons. Rightly, my agency serves both sorts of homelessness – the short-term housing crisis soon resolved and the lifelong condition of living at society’s margins – and every other variety that presents itself. But more and more I think the core of our mission IS at the margins: with those who are so radically alienated from American economic and political structures that it may kill them. And kill them it does.

 

Many of you know the story of how the Homeless Hospitality Center came to be. Several years ago, the City of New London closed its Department of Social Services. Some of our leaders, it seems, hoped that destitute people would seek aid elsewhere, in other municipalities. Concerned parties did set up a replacement emergency shelter for the winter, but at first you had to be sober to get in. Predictably, two men died in the woods that winter. One was Bill Walsh, a well-known individual and a veteran. At Bill’s funeral, Father Emmet Jarrett (of St. Francis House, our neighbor up the street) issued the call: “let us get up tomorrow and create a homeless hospitality center.” That was the start, more or less (many in this room can fill out the details and correct any errors in my folkloric retelling).

Every year, HHC joins St Francis House and other community partners to convene a memorial service for those who have died while experiencing homelessness. On the longest night of the year, we recite the names of the dead.

This ritual of public grief emphasizes two truths:

  • that in this resource-rich and prosperous society an astonishing number of people die due to exposure
  • that some die with precious few to mourn them, which is why we gather their names so carefully across the rest of the year.

Coming out of that ritual, we who work in this field carry grief and sorrow with us as constant companions – at the shelters, under the bridges, in the woods, in the apartments where we visit those still learning and practicing skills of tenancy and neighborliness. We witness unthinkable suffering (that is to say, trauma), and we bear witness to an enormous gap between the scope of human need and the limited capacity of our culture, its systems and structures to meet those needs effectively. For me, therefore, the direct service we provide often involves as well a sorrowing over the failures of our public and our community (That capacity to mourn public failure – and to do so publicly – is especially important today as we prepare to renew this congregation’s Black Lives Matter witness.)

One fateful week this Spring, the staff at HHC experienced three deaths in as many days: one person who was living outside, one in shelter, one in a subsidized apartment. We DID become overwhelmed, and we called outside for help. Reverend Carolyn came. On that third day, we stopped normal business, we gathered in the shelter, and we lit candles. We remembered the lives of people we knew we would remember again on the Longest Night. We gave sorrow just enough space to take root – and it was enough for one day.

 

Simone Weil, who supplied today’s reading, was living as a refugee from the Nazi occupation of France when she wrote those words. Displaced by invaders and targeted for her Jewish identity, Weil would have been wholly justified to focus on her own survival and well-being. But at that very moment she busied herself helping others: the Vietnamese colonial subjects that her government had brought forcibly to do defense work in France. With that remarkable lived witness in mind, let us consider her words again:

(F)or every person there should be enough room,
enough freedom to plan the use of one’s time,
the opportunity to reach ever higher levels of
attention,
some solitude, some silence…

So may it be.

Amen.

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