For part of Thursday morning at Manna House, I went around and asked guests, “What keeps you going?”
“I just go one day to the next. I’m stubborn that way.”
“Jesus.” (This was said by at least six guests).
“My buddies. They’ve got my back.”
“Lord, I don’t know. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”
“This here Maxwell House coffee.”
“The good Lord.” (This was said by eight or more guests).
“Trying to survive.”
“Books I read.”
“The music I’m listening to. The songs I hear.”
“Prayers I say.”
“Coffee and my two feet.”
“The Word of the Day.”
“I’m too angry to give in.”
“H.O.P.E.” (Which stands for Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, a local group of homeless and formerly homeless who advocate for justice for people on the streets).
“This place, Manna House.”
My question came from my own appreciation for the resilience of our guests. They keep going and as Kathleen says, “They bring us their best” in the face of ongoing suffering. The horrors of homelessness might be summed up by a guest who said Monday morning, “I don’t know why they don’t just line us up and shoot us. At least then it would be a quick death instead of this slow death on the streets.”
And he is well aware that homelessness is not the result of mere individual failure.
“Somebody’s making money off of homelessness or there wouldn’t be homelessness.”
Or as an academic puts it, “Housing deprivation is produced to make literal room for the speculative urban consumer economies of neoliberalism…. This is an economy that extracts value from the abandonment of entire populations of people.” (See Craig Willse, “The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States).
So my question. What keeps you going when you know in your soul and in your body that society is organized around making you and keeping you expendable?
The answers the guests gave point to places and powers where they can find resistance to this imposed systemic expendability. Personal traits like stubbornness, anger, and “my own two feet” that refuse to give in to the judgment. Buddies who together refuse to give in to the judgment. Faith that holds to a God who turns judgment away from those on the streets and toward those who put and keep people on the streets. Visions of another world through books and music and the Bible. Places of community where dignity is affirmed, sanctuary is given, the welcome of coffee is available, and justice is sought.
There’s a wisdom in the Manna House guests that feeds their resilience and resistance. The guests at Manna House do not passively accept the suffering imposed upon them. They reject the humiliation and harassment and horrors of homelessness. They find ways to keep going; ways that affirm their worth, their dignity, their humanity. It is, to be sure, a constant struggle. It is not easy to hold onto hope and humanity in the face of powers that want you to despair and be dehumanized.
And so I think of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day saw the struggles of the poor caused by so much injustice and said, “God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.” And Peter Maurin gave the goal consistent with that God, “We want to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.”