Preconceived Notions

Sara and signI’ve written several pieces about the group Love Wins and the work they do in Raleigh, NC. A long-running part of that work is sharing coffee and biscuits every Saturday and Sunday morning with their friends in Moore Square, something they were prevented from doing last Saturday. Since there are plenty of places to find the details (here, here and here), I’m not going into all that. I will say that things have been temporarily resolved: the City Council (who wasn’t in on the decision to crack down on feeding operations) has said that no one would arrested for distributing food while they work on a resolution to the problem.

What I want to talk about today is the public perception of people who are homeless, poor or otherwise on the margins of society. Most of us have a picture of how these people should look, behave, live, etc. and when they don’t fit our preconceived notions, we don’t like it. In the comments section of Hugh’s blog post on the matter, several people were happy about the city’s actions because, as they said, they were tired of being “harassed” by “homeless people” while they try to eat, shop, drink, or whatever else one might do in that part of town. Some complained that the folks receiving the food left trash all over the place, while others noted that some of the people in the pictures that were posted were too well-dressed to actually be homeless. While these remarks sound callous, they result from ignorance and not a lack of feeling.

When I say “ignorance”, I mean it in the classic sense of lacking knowledge on a particular subject. Most people’s interaction with a real, live person who is homeless is limited to seeing them on the side of the road holding a sign that says “Will work for food”. They may have given that person a little money and some might have bought them something to eat. But, it’s likely they’ve never sat down and talked to them, never seen them as a human being with wants and needs not so different from their own.

Those folks who ask you for money aren’t out to make you feel bad, they’re just trying to scrape up enough cash to keep body and soul together. That’s especially true in Raleigh on the weekends, because opportunities for these folks to get fed are extremely limited; there are two major soup kitchens downtown and they operate Monday thru Friday only. It’s my feeling that if those hungry folks are a little aggressive, it’s understandable; good manners tend to fall by the wayside when it’s Saturday evening and you haven’t had anything to eat since lunch on Friday. Another complaint I hear (and have made in the past myself) is that they’ll take whatever money you give them and use it to buy drugs or alcohol. I’ve got two things to say about that: 1) do you spend every penny you receive on wholesome things? And, 2) if you lived outside, don’t you think you might look for an occasional escape from the shitty turn your life has taken?

Raleigh isn’t the only city with a ham-fisted approach to dealing with their at-risk population; Columbia SC has essentially made being visibly homeless downtown a criminal offense. While I’d like to say this is a new developement, it’s not. People in need have gotten the shaft as long as…, well, people have been in need. Jesus said once “You always have the poor with you…” and never has that seemed more true than today. But, he also called us to work at bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, to build a “beloved community”. Running folks out of town isn’t a part of that.