“I’ve been trying to enjoy the cold, but it won’t let me,” said a Manna House guest Monday morning. Nighttime temperatures in the low twenties and daytime highs in the low forties are not the worst temperatures that people deprived of housing will experience this winter. But stay outside for a few hours and see how the cold seeps into your bones.
Monday night I helped Kathleen get people signed in for Room in the Inn. Three churches offered free shelter to thirty six people. That’s three churches in a city of at least a thousand churches. About a half mile away the Union Mission was jammed with hundreds more seeking shelter. Other shelters were also full.
After the Room in the Inn churches picked up the fortunate thirty six, five people walked away into the cold night. Unwilling or unable (for a variety of reasons) to go to any of the other shelters, they faced the night’s cold. Even before this, another twenty or so people had left to try their luck with shelters or stay outside.
Shelter, of course, is not housing. Those of us who are housed might not realize that housing is a matter of life and death. If you live on the streets your death rate is nearly twice as high as those who are housed. And the average age of death for those deprived of housing is around 48 compared with nearly 78 for those who are housed. Without a house not only are people directly exposed to the elements such as the cold of winter and the heat and humidity of summer, they are also exposed to direct, individualized abuse and attack.
I have been reading a challenging book by Craig Willse, The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States. He writes, the truth is that “Housing insecurity and housing deprivation make people sick and make people die,” and “this insecurity and deprivation roll out along entrenched lines of gender, sexual, and racial difference” (Craig Willse, p. 24).
The majority of those seeking shelter Monday night were African American men. Sixteen women, also mostly African American were also there. Among the African American men was an elderly man, recently released from a mental health facility. He was incoherent, and all of his possessions were in two medium-sized Christmas gift bags. Our society systemically deprives those who struggle with mental illness of housing and then blames the individual, “He’s homeless because he’s mentally ill.”
Willse further observes, “The systemic nature of housing insecurity is masked by the objectifying work of the term ‘the homeless.’ When we speak of ‘the homeless,’ we mobilize a pathological category that directs attention to an individual, as if living without housing is a personal experience rather than a social phenomenon. Instead, we might talk in terms of ‘housing deprivation.’ This phrase expresses that living without housing is systemically produced and must be understood as the active taking away of shelter, as the social making of house-less lives” (Willse, p. 2).
I have been meditating on that statement for several days now. I have been putting it into dialogue with Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah warns that if we do not share our bread with the hungry, house those without homes, clothe those who are naked, and recognize our shared humanity with those oppressed, we will be rejected by God, our humanity will shrivel and die, and our society will fall apart (Isaiah 58).
And, of course Isaiah brings the opposite prophetic promise as well. “If you remove the yoke from among you, the giving of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noonday sun. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places… Your ancient ruins will be rebuilt… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:10-12).
As a society we have the resources for everyone to be decently housed. Our military budget is larger than the next eight nations COMBINED. Rev. Earle Fisher shares that “yesterday Powerball sold $323,000 worth of tickets PER MINUTE. They made $29.7 BILLION YESTERDAY ALONE.” We have the resources. Isaiah is clear. In a good society, no one is left out in the cold.