I was at Legislative Plaza tonight and I unfortunately had to leave around 9:30 p.m. I heard that just after I left, you made the statement that people “choose to be homeless or not.” I sincerely hope that I’m mistaken and that you did not make such a statement.
But in the case that I am not mistaken, I wonder if you would say that the young constituent with cerebral palsy that you spoke of also choose to have cerebral palsy? Now before you say that a physical ailment is different from the socio-economic realities of homelessness, allow me explain. Let me tell you about my friend “Mark” who I’ve known for three years. Mark is un-housed and currently lives on Legislative Plaza. He has been an active member of Occupy Nashville and he carries signs, joins us on marches, has been quoted in The Tennessean, comes to our meetings, and picks up trash on the plaza. Mark did not choose to grow up in an abusive foster home. He did not choose to be verbally, physically, and sexually abused for over 10 years. He did not choose to live with such trauma and then to develop severe and persistent mental health problems. He does not choose to shake and have his body go into shock when he tries to stay indoors because he was gang raped by people in shelters. He does not choose to have flashbacks of the horrors he has lived through. Mark did NOT choose to be homeless just like my friend “Teresa” who fled a domestic violence situation did not choose to be homeless, just like my friend “Bill” who also grew up in poverty and in an abusive home did not choose to develop schizophrenia and find himself on the streets without insurance and without a support system.
I have attached a photo to this email. It was a photo taken this past Saturday night when an outreach group I work with (Open Table Nashville) opened up emergency warming shelters because there are not enough shelter and transitional housing beds in Nashville to accommodate all of the men, women, and children who are homeless. This photo is of “Gary’s” feet after we washed and bandaged them. Gary is a 61 year old man. When I found him on Legislative Plaza, he had been wearing the same clothes for multiple weeks. His clothes were stained with urine and feces, and in 20 degree weather he wasn’t wearing socks and was covering himself with a wet, stained sleeping bag. Gary is psychiatrically disabled and mentally impaired. He had second degree frostbite on his feet and sores all over his body from sitting in his own excrement. We took him in, cleaned him up, dressed his wounds, and he has been recovering in the hospital since Saturday night. You cannot tell me that Gary, Bill, Teresa, and Mark choose to be homeless. Don’t even try. If HB 2638/SB 2508 passes, it will make people like Gary—people who DO NOT choose to be homeless, but because of devastating circumstances are cast out from our society—a criminal.
I am a Christian (like you), a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and I have been a homeless outreach worker in Nashville for several years. Do not tell me that your duty is to the “laws of Tennessee” over the laws of God that command us to love our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. To pass this law is NOT to love your neighbors like Gary, Bill, Teresa, and Mark. To pass this law is to criminalize your un-housed neighbors. To pass this law is to turn away from and deny the image of God that is in every one of our un-housed neighbors. But I guess Jesus was criminalized by his state, too—the Roman Empire—so this is nothing new. As my personal hero Dorothy Day once said, “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”
With grave sincerity,
P.S. For extra reading, here is Father Charles Strobel’s op-ed in The Tennessean entitled, “Anti-Occupy bill hits homeless hardest.”