REFLECTIONS: Homeless in America - what does it look like?

by Karen L. Willoughby, |

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (Christian Examiner) – Bob had been an engineer at General Dynamics, he told me when I met him in a park near downtown Fort Worth, Texas.

He was eager to talk and I was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, working on an article about the Beautiful Feet ministry to the homeless that had recently acquired a dilapidated church building volunteers were renovating.

"I had a hard time after losing my job, and I wasn't the only one," Bob told me, explaining how in the economic downturn of the mid-1980s he was unable to find any work, much less something that paid him close to the salary he used to make.

Within six months his overpriced house was gone, and his wife couldn't handle sleeping in the one remaining car they had. She left and took their two elementary-age children with her; he hadn't seen or talked with any of them in the two years since.

"Being homeless isn't so bad," Bob said. He didn't have any responsibilities; he didn't have to get up and go to work every day; he didn't have a house payment to worry about. He was free to do whatever he wanted, he said as he took a long pull off a filtered cigarette.

About 15 or more years later in Oregon, I helped out at a shelter for women and their children, learning quickly that by the time a woman becomes homeless, she has lost everything and wants nothing more than to curl into a fetal ball and stay that way.

Almost all the women were left behind by a husband who had "started a new life"—often after 20 years or more—and she had nothing to establish herself in her own new life: no skills, no proper clothing; no network she could troll for job possibilities.

Typically, these women were unable to pay rent on their own and moved in with friends or family unable for a variety of reasons to help her get on her feet. Two or three moves later, having exhausted stays with those in her support circles, and having nothing more than a backpack of personal things, the cast-off women would make their way to a homeless shelter.

Interestingly, many of these women had some physical ailment they wore like a badge of honor—"I have diabetes," or, "I have fibromyalgia"—as if the disease gave them an identity.

These ailments also required regular visits to a clinic or doctor's office, where they welcomed the individual attention and care.

Now in Grand Junction, Colo., I've made the acquaintance of Sunshine and Shaggy, a middle-aged homeless couple who finally found a weekly hotel to stay at.

It takes more than half their combined SSI checks to pay for the room, but 16 homeless people died of exposure in this city a few winters ago, and, homeless shelters make people leave right after breakfast each day and they're not allowed back until supper, Sunshine said. It's already October so ...

The couple used to spend their days under the cottonwood trees of Whitman Park, south of downtown, but city residents objected to the homeless taking over the park, so local law enforcement chased them off, Shaggy explained. Made to feel unwelcome no matter where they walked, it became less stressful to get a place of their own where they wouldn't bother anyone.

Both Shaggy and Sunshine say they are mentally ill, stable only because of the medications each helps the other remember to take. Shaggy's mom sends him $150 a month to help out; Sunshine's mom doesn't because, she says, she doesn't want to enable her daughter to live "like this."

They're happy because they have each other, both say. They get by with their checks from the government and with the free food and clothing they get at Orchard Mesa Baptist Church. When money for cigarettes runs out, Sunshine picks through ash receptacles at gas stations and supermarkets for partially-smoked butts; the couple also roll their own.

None of the people I've written about here consider themselves to be a drain on society; none of them seem to be thankful for what they are given. Do they have a sense of entitlement, or is it just denial they need so much help? All are sensitive to perceived personal slights, and they are absolutely desperate for respect.

Precisely who are the homeless?

The latest stats, covering 2013, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) indicate a third of the nation's homeless have some college; a third, some form of mental illness; 34 percent are chronic substance abusers; 38 percent victims of domestic violence; and nearly 54 percent are veterans, among other demographic identifiers.

A growing number of the homeless and are victims of an economy their paycheck couldn't afford.

I can relate, having experienced life as the single parent of three toddlers. I became good at juggling bills, paying the light bill one month and the phone bill the next, always just a few weeks from getting either utility turned off.

I also have been surprised by how many people have expressed stress, or at least concern, about the threat of homelessness.

Once, riding in a car pool in Oklahoma City, we were stopped as a homeless person crossed the street. That week's driver was always dressed elegantly. But, as we watched the man in a tattered coat shuffle by with a commandeered grocery cart, she said with almost a shiver in her voice, "There but for the grace of God go I."

In the end, cities' bans against the public feeding of the homeless, poor and needy might seem prudent safety precautions, or essential for good order and cleanliness.

But, the spiritual dimensions are troubling.

The Gospel writer, Matthew warns us God will punish those who neglect the stranger in need, and Ezekiel cautions that the sin of Sodom was its failure to help the poor.

It's not hard to understand the "arrogant, overfed and unconcerned" of Ezekiel 16:49 in contemporary contexts.

Chasing feeding ministries and the homeless out of parks and off the streets for the sake of "housekeeping" is not just immoral. It makes these cities the "sisters of Sodom."