No Room in the Inn

“Homelessness is not a choice, but rather a journey that many find themselves in.”
Asa Don Brown

One consequence of growing old in America is having time to reexamine beliefs that may not hold up to the challenges of science or scholarship. Christian scholars, including the Pope, himself a biblical scholar, have concluded there are problems with the Gospel accounts of the nativity. There was no stable and Jesus was probably born in a home belonging to a member of Joseph’s family. The discrepancies can be attributed to poor translations and and the desire of early Christians to emphasize the humble origins of the holy family. I loved the story and committed it to memory as a child. The phrase, “no room in the inn,” comes to mind whenever I pass one of the tent villages that spring up in my community. And because Aquinas was required reading at my high school, I can’t forget De Civitate Dei, and know these dismal places also belong to “the city of God.”

Back in 2011, Eugene, Oregon had an Occupy camp pop up in a public space. The camp became a residence for activists and large numbers of people who were actually homeless. The camp was eventually shut down for reasons of health and safety, but unlike other communities, Eugene leaders set up a task force charged with finding solutions to the homeless problem in the town. It took three years, but the task force came up with something other than paper to show for their efforts. Their main recommendation was to create a place where the city’s homeless could be safe. A young urbcommunal building and community planner, Andrew Heben, devised a plan to move residents from tent cities to a consolidated village of tiny homes. The city agreed to donate an acre plot of land to the project and gave them a year’s lease for a pilot project. Heben and others raised $100,000 in cash donations and about another $100,000 worth of donated materials to build the village, that would ultimately provide shelter for 42 previously unhoused people. His plan included out buildings to house a communal kitchen and bathroom facilities, so basic needs could be met.

I live in a uniquely engaged community with a history of progressive politics that is probably more invested in creatively supporting its homeless population than other cities. The Eugene Service Station, under the auspices of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, provides homeless adults with a warm and welcoming place where they can meet their basic needs (food, day shelter, clothing, laundry, showers, supplies) and get assistance stabilizing their personal crises. The ESS has telephones, message services, computer access, job and housing referrals. In 2014, the ESS helped more than 7,802 adults, providing more than $26,000 in clothing vouchers, 144,000 meals and over 30,000 showers utilizing solar hot water.  All of this is wonderful, but on any given night there are 3000 homeless people in Eugene, so these efforts are the equivalent of putting a bandage on a sucking chest wound.

The homeless are quite visible in our community and in addition to the efforts of groups already mentioned, the Salvation Army and local church groups also provide support to our homeless population. One of the problems they face is that the group is so diverse. The climate and the fact that Eugene is a college town draws the homeless here. They can be seen panhandling at the bus terminal and lucrative highway corners. Approximately 46% of them have abused alcohol and another 38% have reported a problem with drug abuse. A lot of them don’t want help. There is also a small criminal element that preys on the disabled and mentally disturbed members of the population. The camps appear overnight and are usually shut down two to three weeks later. The unapproved camps are filthy and can pose a health threat to the surrounding community. Not surprisingly, those having to deal with the unmanaged encampments lose patience and push to have them shut down as mounds of garbage accumulate. Then comes guilt.

Most of us come from backgrounds that used “no room in the inn” as a metaphor for Christian charity. The situation at our Southern border further highlights the problem of the homeless and displaced. We are especially attuned to their needs and we find it really hard to say no. Sometimes, though, we have to.  Just around the corner from our home there is a professional beggar, homeless by design, who reports to “work” at 9 in the morning and sits with his cup and sign until 4:30 in the afternoon. He appears everyday like clockwork. In his parlance, he has what’s considered to be a good corner and we’ve seen him fight to defend it. Not far away, there is another more aggressive panhandler who pounds on car windows and spews filth when no money comes his way. What do we owe them? I don’t know what series of events put them on the street, so they have my sympathy and the respect I think all people are due, but I’m not sure what else I can do. They are of an age and in a category for which assistance is available. They are clearly not using resources that might help them. Locally, we’ve been advised not to provide food or money directly to the panhandlers who occupy corners in our community. The best way to support the homeless is through organizations that are set up to properly help them. Intellectually, I’ve bought into that, but there are days emotion rules, and I clearly hear the gospels and the refrain, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”

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