Sunday, August 10, 2008

Night of the living homeless

My pastor, Todd Hiestand, recently posted on a story about the homeless in inner-city Philadelphia. Due to a love triangle, one homeless person killed another. It is a sad and tragic situation, though similar stories are found everywhere among even the very wealthy. Love makes people do strange and even criminal things. And yet, in the comments to the news story, people said some incredibly horrifying, insensitive, and hateful things:

Mark C Student says: “that is one homeless person down - now if only they would all take care of each other so that those of us who work and pay taxes can enjoy our city - honestly - they have time to have sex love triangles and make all kinds of friends and sex partners - they could find time to get jobs - at least now this one woman has another solution to the homeless problem”

daddyimscared says: “OK..lets recap–in the heart of Center City we have TWO homeless woment fighting for the affection of another homeless guy, and one kills the other! They have the energy to kill but not to work??”

why says: “get them off the street. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. The rubbish, the crime, the exposing of themsleves and the filth. This is an easy solution. ENFORCE THE NO CAMPING. These people dont want help…..They want to have teh right to live on our streets and our parks…have sex……fornicate and relieve themselves in public…..How long does this city need to be subjected to this”

Mark C Student [again!] says: “people have themselves to blame for homelessness - and for all the breeding done by people who cant support their offspring - none of the people out ruining the city by peeing on the streets, harassing taxpayes - and now killing themselves - are going to contribute to society in a meaningful way - they are violating our social contract - so, don't blame the rest of us, curtis. When my house had a rodent problem - we took measures to protect our belongings and called an exterminator - we didn't look for ways to help the rodents coexist”
Thankfully, there was at least one sane comment, by the “curtis” to whom that last comment by Mark C Student was addressed:
It is sad to see how many posters are seemingly "happy" with this murder. These people posting such harsh comments seem to think that the homeless are the problem. I see the situation a bit differently: these unsympathetic Philadelphians posting on this website are just as much a part of the problem, by creating a general culture of not caring enough to work together and improve the situation for ALL citizens of the city. A real shame ... go work, volunteer and meet some of the homeless and you will probably see that these are people like you and me, with problems and issues but a desire to have a better life. This lack of compassion is a real shock to me, and I hope the victim of this crime rests in peace, far from these crazy comments that seem to rejoice in a meaningless murder.
It’s simply incredible to see how ignorant people are of the systems of oppression which enslave the homeless and keep them there. People, generally conservatives, seem to think that any person can just will themselves out of homelessness. If you just try hard enough and want it badly enough, it will all just go away. They toss around overly simplified clichés like “give a person a fish, feed him for a day; teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime,” forgetting that sometimes you need to give him a fish so that he can live to learn how to fish. Of course, what’s really sad is that this cliché is usually used simply to excuse people from giving anything, when the other side of the statement—educating the homeless—is not done instead. We need both aspects, social welfare and comprehensive programs of rehabilitation, not shoddy excuses and self-righteous drivel.

When I read these kinds of comments about the homeless, I am reminded of the brilliant South Park episode from season 11, entitled, “Night of the Living Homeless.” The episode took the idea of the homeless as a kind of alien Other and ran with it. Here the homeless are not ordinary people who have had a difficult life; instead, they are a different race altogether. The film, as indicated by the title, combines the issues surrounding homelessness with the narrative of your typical zombie movie, especially 28 Days Later. In such stories, a human being slowly transforms into a zombie due to contact with other zombies; they become inhuman and monstrous, no longer worthy of basic human decency and respect. And just as zombies live by feeding on the flesh of living humans, so too the homeless live by feeding on the change given them by people on the street.

One of the brilliant moments in the episode occurs near the end, when the four boys are speaking with some men from the next town over. The leader of these “survivors” goes into the following monologue when asked how they got rid of the homeless:
The homeless first started arriving in Evergreen about three months ago. At first there were only a few of them—asking for change, sleeping in the parks. But then more showed up. And we realized there was something different about them. They fed off of our change to the point that they could start renting apartments. We knew it wouldn’t be long before the homeless actually started buying homes. And then we’d have no idea who was homeless and who wasn’t! People living in the house right next door to you could be homeless and you wouldn’t even know! Nobody could trust anybody. Fights broke out. War. That’s when I started suspecting that my own wife, who I’d been living with for 20 years, was actually homeless. So I had to burn her—in her bed, while she slept.
He goes on to reveal that their plan for dealing with the homeless problem involved luring the homeless to South Park. As Stan says, “But then you didn’t solve the problem. You just moved it.”

What makes this episode so smart is the way it taps into our rhetoric about the homeless as some homogeneous Other. They are all the same—lazy, parasitic, incompetent, selfish, etc. In short, not like us, essentially inhuman. The homeless represent that intolerable pest which we desperately want to be rid of altogether. They are a blight to society, who have chosen to be this way. They want to be homeless, in the same way that gays want to be gay, according to the conservative nutjobs out there. And like homosexuals or those who are racially Other, the homeless are then stigmatized. They become objects of fear and loathing. Like Latino immigrants that carry the stigma of illegal immigration, we associate any homeless-looking person with everything that threatens our way of life. Even if they take on this way of life—even if the homeless person rents an apartment or buys a home, as the man says in the South Park episode—they remain “homeless.” Like the gay man who works in the next cubicle or the Muslim family who participates in the local PTA, the homeless can never be true members of society. They can never be fully human. They still and always remain representatives of everything that we find undesirable and scary, unwanted and unknown. The homeless become part of this ever-expanding list of groups whom we identify as America’s enemies: terrorists, immigrants, blacks, gays, Europeans, liberals, Muslims, and now homeless. The list goes on.

Todd asks the question, “Why do we hate the homeless?” The answer, I submit, is that we simply hate that which is different from us. We hate the Other. We hate difference and diversity. This is the basis for misogyny, racism, and homophobia. People adopt the creed that we protect “our own,” and no one else. We look out for our individual interests and the interests of those who are “like us.” That is the limit of our interest and concern. Our empathy only extends to those with whom it is natural for us to empathize. In the end, it comes down to a blanket rejection of Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan and his command to love our enemies. One might even say it boils down to a hatred, or at least suspicion, of our neighbor. Hence the “white flight” from the city to the suburbs.

In the end, we are called to love our neighbor, to love our enemy, to show compassion on those who different, other, and unknown. Like Israel, we are called to welcome the stranger, for we were once aliens and strangers in the land. We must remember that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11). Translated, we might say, there is no longer White and Black, gay and straight, homeless, Muslim, immigrant and citizen, imprisoned and free; but Christ is all and in all.

1 comment:

stan said...

I think part of the problem and frustration with the homeless population is that almost all of them are so mentally dysfunctional (or choose the more nuanced term you prefer) that anything like a recovery or good outcome is impossible. You can't get there from here.

They are very similar in status to criminals who need incarceration. We treat criminals as Others in that way....not worthy of presence in the community. I think you would get the same lack of sympathy from a story of two inmates killing each other.

I don't think Matthew 25 was intended to assert Christ's presence among criminals or the homeless or the sick (a class to which we all will belong eventually). Putting social classes into the parable rather than seeing them as more SITUATIONS in the life of the Christian that present themselves and for which they will be judged is a problem.

For instance, my grandfather, an unbeliever, was sick and dying and I comforted him serving Christ in that way even though he was goat who wouldn't have done the same for anyone else. Meanwhile another sick person laid two houses down and I neglected them as they were not my concern and I don't expect Jesus to scorn me one day for not hitting every sick bed on the block. But if I had neglected the call of responsibility to my grandfather I expect Jesus would have been upset.

Likewise with homeless, Matt 25 doesn't call for a blanket response to a class of people, but a response to Christ in a particular situation. It is perfectly fine to decide "no, this guy is a criminal or bum and I will ignore them." Your reading doesn't allow this because THE OTHER class is automatically privileged and so it is simply a recipe for a never-ending guilt trip.
(By the way I run a meals on wheels route to indigent elderly. I am not encouraging indifference.)