Someone was sleeping under a pink blanket in the entryway of the building across the street from Manna House. The light above the entryway might make this a less dangerous place to sleep. A sleeper is perhaps less likely to be attacked in the light. I walked by the sleeper as I made my way to Manna House. She did not stir.
Shortly after I started the coffee for the morning, I noticed the sleeper was now on the front porch, waiting for Manna House to open. She still had her pink blanket, and it was still wrapped around her against the morning chill. This morning was not cold, in the mid-fifties. But spend a night on the streets in fifty degree weather and try to sleep on a thin piece of cardboard with one blanket. The chill will not leave until much later in the day, or maybe a bit earlier with three or four cups of hot coffee.
The sleeper is a new guest at Manna House. She signed up for a shower yesterday and will get one later this morning. It is women’s shower day.
She’s one of a number of new guests showing up at Manna House over the past few weeks. Our economy is constantly creating more people deprived of housing, more people to sleep on the streets or in shelters.
When regular volunteers from the past return for a visit to Manna House they often observe, “I know so few of the guests anymore.” And then the questions begin, “Where is so and so?” What happened to her?” “Do you know where he is?”
Most of the answers are hard. “Dead.” “Prison.” “Hit by a car and still in the hospital.” “We don’t know.” On occasion I can thankfully say, “Housed.”
The questions come from the continual new stream of people on the streets. The answers come from how deadly the streets remain and how few get into housing.
Who is responsible for this deadly reality? Who is responsible for homelessness? Some will blame those who end up homeless. “They make bad choices.” But that response begins to fall apart with a single question, “Do you know any people who made bad choices who are not homeless?” Homelessness does not happen to everyone who makes bad choices. There is something bigger than bad choices causing homelessness. And it falls further apart with a few follow up questions. “Do you know any people who made a choice to get mentally ill?” “Do you know any people who made a choice to get a crippling illness or injury?” “Do you know any people who made a choice to be born into poverty?”
The hard truth is that homelessness (and its parent, poverty) are systemic, built right into our economic and political system. If anyone makes choices that cause homelessness it is those of us who are not homeless. We choose to keep supporting a system that profits from poverty and homelessness.
How does the system keep wages low and working conditions bad? The system threatens unemployment if you try to organize for better wages and working conditions. “Keep that up and you’ll be fired. You’ll be poor and homeless.” The system keeps up the competition between workers through the fear of poverty and homelessness. The system promises to “Make American Great Again” or “Make American Whole Again” and does not promise to fundamentally alter the imbalance of power between workers and the corporations and businesses that control their labor. The system dismisses changing the imbalance of power as “socialism” or “unrealistic” and threatens economic ruin (more poverty) if that imbalance is balanced. The system uses the threat of poverty and homelessness as sticks to keep people in line. The system offers the carrot of the promise that if you conform to the system you can stay out of poverty and homelessness. The system profits from poverty and homelessness and so keeps both going.
The woman asleep under the pink blanket this morning is the inevitable result of a system that puts profits before people and greed before graciousness. It is a system that in Memphis can find $15 million for maintenance for the FedEx Forum, but not a dime for a mere shelter, much less housing. It is a system in every state that finds money for more police and prisons but not housing for persons. It is a system in which nationally housing and health care are not human rights, but unfettered pursuit of wealth is constitutionally and culturally guaranteed.
I read some Isaiah the other day (chapter 58). He had words for people in an equally corrupt system, words that get read at the start of the Christian season of Lent (which we are still in). “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Any other fasting, Isaiah urges, is just pious crap.
At the same time, Isaiah held out a vision for the kind of society possible when we choose the true fast from injustice and for justice, when we choose an economics and politics for the well-being of every person instead of a select few, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing 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 be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” And on such restored streets, there will no longer be a woman sleeping under a pink blanket in the morning cold. It is our choice.