I’ve always thought that the best, un-fulfilled promise we might make toward the homeless was to build showers and offer laundry service to them. I know, it sounds pretentious and elitist and other words that are not flattering, but in point of fact, it isn’t just for my comfort that this suggestion rises in my mind, and not just for the comfort of the, shall we say home-ful population, but for the fact that it is hard to move about in society when you are barred from certain places, certain gatherings due to issues of hygiene.
It is also not by way of blaming the homeless for being offensive. I was listening to the radio the other day and a researcher was talking about work he was doing in trying to figure out why it is that hoarding behavior happens, why people sometimes get an irresistible urge to acquire and to hold onto things. The reason that this struck me was that at the time that I was listening to the interview, I was at the corner of College and Mendocino watching a local homeless man trying to negotiate the three shopping carts full of his belongings across the street, moving in shifts all the while trying to assure himself that the cart on the far side of the intersection would be safe until he got there.
The point of the research was that people get acquisitive when they are hungry. When you are hungry, so the scientist says, you seek out satisfaction for that hunger and the thing that you crave, in this case food, rises in importance in your mind and whatever you acquire to satisfy that hunger will be more satisfying to you because it assuages the hunger.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, that same mechanism, while it is seemingly so focused on hunger, also causes everything else in the world to appear a little more awesome, a little more precious, a little more important to you in the general scheme of things and so people who are hungry when they shop are more likely to end up with a while lot of things that they do not actually want or need. Worse still, whatever you acquire that is not in direct response to your hunger, i.e. everything that is not, you know, food, is not satisfying to your original hunger but still seems important enough to keep around.
The homeless people are not toting around an inordinate amount of stuff for no reason, and some things are just going to fall off of the priority list if you are chasing the dragon of hunger around town.
So managing a shower is not just difficult, I mean can you tell me where the public showers are in town? Last time I saw a public shower was at a national park; it is not just difficult to manage it is hard to push upward into the top five list of things to do today to remain alive, to keep dry in the rain, to keep warm in the cold of night.
Maybe if you don’t live in an area of town with a large homeless population you can be forgiven for missing this but we have a rapidly growing homelessness problem in this town and there is nothing on the horizon that is going to fix it so far as I can see. Our rental vacancy rate hovers around one percent so, as you may have seen recently in the Press Democrat, people are camping out overnight in order to have a chance at renting an apartment so there is little or none left over to help lift people out of the state in which they now live.
I, however, live along a fairly busy “homeless highway” and spend more than just a little time working on the homelessness issue here in town so you might just have to take my word for it, the problem is getting worse.
I am also on the board of a local homelessness service organization, and one that provides more extensive services to our clients because it is often just not enough to let them have a nice rest for a day or two, sometimes there are more things going on that meet the eye, especially the eye as it travels in a car at thirty-five miles an hour past them on the corner.
As often as not, all we can see is the “homeless tan,” that brick-red coloring that comes from almost never being indoors. We see the dogs and wonder why it is they insist on being responsible for anything beyond themselves, given how iffy their self-care is but not seeing that clinging to love, clinging to loyalty in a life otherwise devoid of it might be the last thing that links them to the rest of us and maybe ought be preserved instead of condemned.
And most of all, we see, if we are lucky we just see but if you take a turn at Elisha’s Pantry, or any of the other homeless services places in town you will not just see but you will also smell the fact that there is no place for homeless citizens of Santa Rosa to clean up.
They are dirty. The kind of dirty we relish when coming back from a camping trip, the kind of dirty we love oh so much to wash off of ourselves as we use it to conjure memories of campfires and hot dogs on sticks and hiking and sleeping on the ground.
I suspect it loses some of the romance when it is not a vacation, when it is just, you know, Wednesday, and Thursday and every day for the foreseeable future. Something tells me that the thrill of campfire smell and sleeping on the ground fades after the first month.
And we live in a culture that hates dirty, that absolutely hates smelly. People haul out the old meme all the time about traveling in Europe and wondering if anybody every showers there but it never occurs to them that Americans say that about every other place on earth and never once consider whether or not it might just be us.
We have created an entire industry surrounding the elimination or masking or covering up of smells. We walk into our homes and expect them to smell like Honeybee Rhythm (registered trademark of the Glade Corporation, a subsidiary of the S. C. Johnson Company.) instead of Mid-Century Bungalow in a Bedroom Community, which is what mine smells like most of the time.
We want to pretend that our cats do not poop. I sometimes think that the only reason we had a child was so that we could have a cat and have someone else scoop the box from time to time, but even if they do poop we most certainly don’t want to have to, you know, notice, so the dirt we put into their box has to be special, odor masking dirt. Our laundry has to smell like Spring Rain, whatever the heck that means; our garbage bags mask the scent of our garbage so we might forget that it is there, there is now a product on the market called, not kidding Poo-pourri, a toilet bowl odor control spritz.
Caitlyn got into the car after soccer practice the other night and I commented that she smelled like sweat, and she actually apologized to me until I jumped in and said she didn’t smell bad, you know, the way old sweat-socks smell, but like sweat itself, a little salty and, well, for want of a better word, human. The fact that there needed to be an explanation of the difference is as good an illustration of the problem facing us when we wish to be as Christ to our neighbor as any.
Imagine, in the context of all of that smell-o-phobia, what reaction we might have to someone unable to keep themselves clean, unable by circumstance to make themselves smell rugged and manly, unable to arrive at that nirvana of American accomplishment, the smell that can only be called, not-a-human, <sing-song> by Mennen.
They are dirty and all of the judgment that goes with that statement attaches itself to them in an instant. Dirty is conflated with lazy, but try to get from free food outlet to free food outlet in this town over the course of a week, and you will find that it entails a lot of work just to keep yourself from starving, and even then only barely. Dirty is conflated with not having a plan, or not having prospects, or not having any pride, not having and self-respect.
For whatever reason, we see them as just like us – except for all of their failings. We wonder why they don’t care about their appearance, cleanliness, hygiene. We wonder at the decisions that they make, keeping a dog, not haunting the unemployment office, not having a plan.
What we do not realize is that, given that they are almost always hungry, (yes, even the fat ones) their reactions have slowly changed, their expectations have slowly changed over time and they cannot, can not react the way that you and I do because they do not have the same set of assumptions, the same set of expectations.
We expect to be clean every day unless we decide not to be. We expect to be fed every day, we expect that the lights will turn on, that our jobs will be there, that even if they are not that we have resources upon which to draw.
None of that is true for them and the fact that none of that is true for them is not at all their fault it is simply the circumstance in which they live. No matter how they got there, some through bad choices, some through nothing more exciting than bad luck, once they are there they assume different truths.
1) If you can get it, you should get it. Remember the study I mentioned earlier? Well, when you are always hungry, your acquisitiveness knows no bounds. Hence the shopping carts, the nests filled with other people’s cast-offs, the whole shebang.
2) If someone else can get it from you, they will. I once offered to replace the broken bicycle pump used by one of Santa Rosa’s homeless men and while he was very interested in getting a new pump, he would not part with the old one, afraid I was pulling one over on him, me, Pastor Tim, defender of the weak and champion of all things Lutheran.
3) Things are unlikely to get better. This one is evidence based. Once you have been homeless for a while, it is pretty darned hard to get out of it, your whole world changes to fit your situation.
They have a different world view from us and in a triumph of irony we come to see them as simultaneously exactly the same as us, only with huge failings, and also as entirely alien, something we can and should have no contact with, lest whatever their problems are might be catching.
They are not a part of the promise of God, not a part of the communion of saints. We cannot understand them and so they are not like us, we swim in clean water and they are dirty.
But Jesus didn’t step forward to be baptized by John because the waters he was walking into were so clean; not the waters of the Jordan, they were about as clean as they have ever been, but the stream of humanity into which Jesus walked and into it He went in full knowledge that not a one of us was clean, pure, innocent.
Into the filth and the muck of human sin Jesus strode because that’s where we were and no other act could more clearly communicate the will of God that all should be saved than for Jesus to bring all that was Holy into the messy, smelly, unclean, sinful river of humanity so that we might know holiness through Him, that we might appeal to God for a good conscience like Peter says, and see our brothers as brothers and our sisters as sisters and love them as Christ loved them, loved us, loves us even as we lift our noses at the funkiness of some of God’s children, as we avert our eyes from their dirtiness.
If we were righteous then Jesus would have no call to save us and if we were clean then we’d have no cause to be baptized.
Jesus comes to us because we need to be cleaned, we need to be washed. It’d be downright ungrateful if we were to forget that, to pretend that we are not just like those that have fallen through the cracks except for circumstance, luck and a shower.
If you want to give something up for Lent and so many think that this is what lent is all about, then give up hubris, even if only for a day or two and try and feel God’s glory as Jesus comes up out of the water and yet somehow, by the grace of God, we are clean.