Feeding the Homeless: Where Did the Cord Break?

At the library, I do not like sitting near a man stinking of urine any more than you do.

But that is not the end of the inquiry.

The main branch of the Orange County Public Library here in Orlando, like so many other institutions in so many other cities, occasionally encounters a problem with homeless clients. These members of the public may, at various times, come in to read, get out of the heat, use the bathrooms, or simply rest. The majority of them are quiet, clean, and respectful users of the library. They just happen to be homeless as well.

Once in awhile, though, a homeless user of the library will be one of the unfortunate homeless who is physically or mentally ill. He may be dirty or otherwise unkempt. He may smell. In such cases, public institutions are hard-pressed to behave compassionately to the individual but fairly to the group he may offend. It’s a difficult situation. Switch out the library for nearby businesses that have political clout, and it can get morally ugly.

feeding_homelessThat’s the nature of the dispute that has arisen in Raleigh, N.C. regarding the use of Moore Park (a public facility) as a site for donating meals to the homeless on weekends, when the usual shelter is not open. (The story has made the media rounds; here is a recent report from National Public Radio.) Briefly, local businesses in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital, maintain that panhandlers, usually homeless people and some of them unsavory, are hurting business. Until recently, when the city council decided to stop enforcing a local ordinance so the matter could be studied in detail, police were arresting church groups who fed the homeless in Moore Park on weekends.

Strictly speaking, the business owners in Raleigh may be right: aggressive panhandling by the homeless may indeed depress their business. What is breath-stealing, though, is the jump straight from “we’ve got a problem” to “where are our jackboots; we gotta put this down.” It’s a huge embarrassment for a state that has lately had a checkered record on gay rights, voting fairness, and more. The fact that the city council put the brakes on this thuggery to give itself a chance to study things and get it right is a small step back toward sanity.

Others have written, and therefore I will not belabor, of the multitude of reasons that make it repulsive to unleash armed, uniformed police on people who are giving food to the less fortunate. I don’t need to quote Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Gandhi or anyone else; you’re all familiar. You were born familiar. (The comments attached to the NPR story do a good job with this too; but beware: there’s some scary resistance.) What I want to know is this:

Where has individual courage gone to hide?

Oh, I know. Easy for me to say. Study after study, text after text, tell of the withering power of authority to bury individual conscience. So why should I expect any one person up and down the line of the Moore Park travesty to stand up and say NO? Maybe I shouldn’t. But imagine: a park full of mostly quiet, mostly grateful, mostly well-behaved people come to eat, to do a necessary human act that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish without the loving help of their benefactors, the church groups who provide and bring the food. How in any world view does that ever get trumped by the gathering of dollars?

The individuals involved: how does Leading Business Owner go straight from “eewww” to “criminalize compassion and sweep these bums outta my sight” without stopping at, “Hm. Maybe I can help. We could get the whole community involved. I mean, I repair watches, but Rudy has a diner, and I could kick in some money, and we could make a group thing out of it….”.

How does a police officer make himself face a pastor and say, get out or you’re going to jail….to enforce a mean-spirited ordinance? Is this why he became a cop? To do this? Sure, he may fear for his job; he may well have people to support. But after awhile, don’t you have to say, Enough? God will provide; I’ll get another job; I just can’t use my uniform and sidearm to keep a homeless guy who’s behaving himself from getting a bowl of cereal and a banana. Does it never occur to him? What makes him go on?

How does a city councilman zing straight to ghettoizing people who, usually through no fault of their own, are down on every morsel of their luck?

All these people likely weren’t this way as kids, or even young adults. Something broke. Some cord. In the dark they have surrounded themselves with, they can’t find the ends to tie them back together.

If the objectionable man in the library were bleeding, instead of smelling of urine, we’d stop what we were doing to find out why. There’s more behind the stink than any of us know. We should find out. If we can, we should help. We certainly shouldn’t rush to criminalization in pursuit of banishing some civic discomfort or increasing profits. Will we sometimes run into the kind of foul reprobate that haters of the homeless want us to believe they all are? Sure. But not very often.

To retie the cord, we have to find the ends. To find the ends, we need to let in the light and look.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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3 thoughts on “Feeding the Homeless: Where Did the Cord Break?

  1. Once upon a time, cities maintained public bath houses. How hard, how expensive would it be to have a well-placed facility in every major city? … Oh, wait, we already have a giant publicly owned facility with lots of showers and laundries in downtown Orlando — the Amway Center!
    • A history of public bathing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_bathing

  2. A downtown Orlando church, where I once was an active and generous congregant, has a gym and exercise facilities with locker rooms, and it sells memberships. I befriended a homeless guy, and bought him a membership so he’d have somewhere safe to take a daily shower and maintain a small locker in which to keep toiletries, his cell phone and his birth certificate, state ID and U.S. passport (which I helped him obtain). … A couple members of the church approached me, basically to complain about allowing “that guy” into their private club. … I no longer attend that church, not specifically because of that situation, but it was a contributing factor in my decision to depart.

  3. Galaxian says:

    I think what you are seeing is the turn in U.S. political philosophy back somewhat toward social Darwinism of the kind familiar from Herbert Spencer’s 19th-century writing. This is not because Americans lack personal generosity, or that the Christians among them have forgotten religious imperatives toward compassion, but merely a consequence of our fully developed economy in which it’s assumed that anyone will be able to provide enough exchange to keep off the streets. Indeed, this is true for 99% of the population who either have earnings capacity or can be dependent on someone who does. But it’s not true for everyone, so we have dispossessed and homeless. As the problem persists and is rubbed into the public face by repeated awareness campaigning on part of organized advocacy covered by the media, patience and tolerance seem to be fading now. Families and businesses are struggling to maintain comfort standards in a country one of the world’s most expensive places to live–nowhere else in human history have computers and massive SUVs become necessary possessions that one lacking them must have something wrong with her or his character. But a structural shift taking place in our economy shows we are reaching limits on raising the bar and rushing the pace of life. Because those not yet “hit” by the changes don’t yet appreciate their magnitude, it’s unsurprising they don’t like the inconvenient presence of social failures in public spaces. Best of the town’s luck to you–I doubt Raleigh or Orlando are atypical, but do suspect that towns become less “homeless-friendly” as their homeless populations increase. Even if such unfriendliness is not enshrined in official policy, say in a politically liberal place, a sensation that cold knives are being drawn behind one’s back on predatory streets infects the public conscience.

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