Last night the city council of my community voted 9 – 0 to support an ordinance from the Mayor banning overnight camping and storage of personal effects on public land. In effect this ban criminalize the homeless in our community. In a city with a shortage of shelter beds for men and no beds for women, the question was asked of the Council and Mayor: “Where do you sleep and store your few possessions when you have nowhere to go?” They had no answer.
The presenting issue seemed to be a small encampment near an elementary school. One parent who supported the ordinance spoke passionately of his fear of seeing homeless people near his child’s school. What he was afraid of went unstated and unchallenged. The implication was that the homeless are to be feared, especially near children. Neither the Mayor nor the Police Chief who spoke did anything to dissuade the parent of his fear.
One citizen who spoke in opposition to the ban suggested that the ban be limited to encampments near schools. This seemed like a reasonable accommodation but neither the Council nor the Mayor were interested in anything short of a total ban.
In my 30 years of walking with the homeless, in the vast number of instances, they have not wanted to draw attention to themselves. They simply want to have space to be. Surely I’ve had to set parameters with my homeless neighbors on occasion, but I’ve never thought of the homeless as a group to fear. Unfortunately this stereotype was reinforced by last night’s vote.
Over the years I’ve developed some close friendships with people who happen to be homeless. I’ve learned their names and stories and found that we have much in common. I’ve learned that a person doesn’t choose to be homeless but rather is the result of circumstances that could have the same result for any of us. I’ve come to admire their strength in living with challenges that would have completely broken many.
The vote of the Council was a sad day for our community. Yet I think of Dr. Martin Luther King who said: “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I’ve been on the losing end of many a vote over the years but as a follower in the way of Jesus, I hold onto the belief that love not fear will ultimately have the last word. Together let’s keep the faith.
Note: A hopeful sign is that the Mayor and Council are forming a task force to explore the causes that lead into and keep people homeless. The challenge is to work with and hold the task force accountable to provide for the most vulnerable of our neighbors. In whatever community you call home I encourage you to add your voice for the common good.