“If I die tonight, no one will miss me.”
One of our guests said this to me on this cold Thursday morning. He had slept outside in the twenty-degree weather last night. Now he was warming himself near the heater in the chapel area at Manna House and waiting for his hot shower. He asked me if I knew whether or not the city would open warming centers tonight. I did not know.
I called the Office of Emergency Management for the City of Memphis which makes the decision about opening warming centers. I waited through a menu of options which included the Animal Shelter, Garbage Pick-Up, and the Non-Emergency Number for the Memphis Police. There was no option for “Homeless Services” or “Human Shelter.” I selected “0” for the operator. I was told that there would be no warming centers tonight. The forecast is for a low of 31. For Friday the forecast low is 18. I later learned from a city official that warming centers will be open Friday night, but they are not consistently open due to lack of funding. Another city official callously said, “There should be plenty of space at area shelters.” This is simply not true and also glides over the fact that there is no free public shelter in the city of Memphis.
All shelter in Memphis is church affiliated or run by private organizations. And almost all of those are not free. The largest shelter in the city, the Union Mission, mandates attendance at a Christian worship service in order to stay overnight, and also charges $6.00 for the night. It does offer a few free nights before charging. The only regular free shelter is Room in the Inn Memphis which works with area churches to place people overnight in church spaces. Tonight, there is one church offering shelter through Room in the Inn.
At least one person has frozen to death in Memphis this winter. Eric Martin died near City Hall a few weeks ago. Each winter, people on the streets freeze to death in Memphis. Others die from pneumonia or other illnesses they catch in the bitter cold.
Earlier this week I learned that a member of a Madison Ave business association referred to people on the streets as “trash that needs to be picked up.”
The Mayor’s Office and this businessman share the view that some people are expendable. For them, people on the streets have no inherent worth or value. Value depends upon social standing, typically measured by such characteristics as economic status, race, gender, sexuality, and mental and physical health.
The Gospel holds a different view. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said (Luke 6:20). And in case someone missed his point he told a judgment day parable in which God takes the position that “Whatever you do unto to the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46).
“If I die tonight, no one will miss me.” I wanted to tell this guest at Manna House this morning that he is not expendable, that he is wrong to think such a thing. In honesty, I could not tell him either of those things. So, I simply said, “If you die tonight, I will miss you and so will Kathleen and Ashley and everyone else at Manna House. But please don’t die. It’s time for your shower.”