While hanging rafters in a Chicago suburb seven years ago, I decided I would go to seminary to be a pastor in the LCMS. I never thought much of my work in my first call would be illegal. I serve food to the homeless every Saturday night in Love Park, and often throughout the week while on foot—something that will be illegal in a few short weeks.
In a statement from Philadelphia’s Mayor Michael Nutter delivered Wednesday, giving food to the homeless in public will be illegal, punishable by fines. The rationale the mayor gave us for the ban is that he wants safer food conditions for the poor, increased dignity for the homeless, better access to public programs for those who need them, improved coordination between aid agencies, and cleaner streets. I think those are great goals. I want those things. I hope those things become a reality. I work for those things every day.
However, Mayor Nutter’s words sound great on paper because the homeless have no voice. Those who smell bad, act strange and live odd lives don’t get much say compared to us who shower, speak appropriately and can face up well to the world around us. The homeless are unwanted, and their voices aren’t heard. They die and little amounts to their passing. Yes, a homeless man can have an off-putting way about him. But he is still a man; I see him as a person who should be cared for as I would care for my son. So, in opposition to the mayor’s ban and his rhetoric to enforce it, allow me to speak for those whose only means of communication are letters scrawled on a scrap piece of cardboard.
First, the mayor says I rob my homeless people of their dignity. This bothers me the most. I talk to the homeless. I pray with them and visit with them. I don’t give them food only to salve my own conscience and pat my organization on the back. How a parish pastor makes shut-in calls, I make street calls where I read scriptures, offer a devotion, pray for the person and follow up to check their progress. Sometimes I just chat. They know I love them because I tell them.
Not only do I treat the homeless as real people, I give them a means to do what gives them purpose in life. For example, my events on Saturday night in Love Park are staffed by four homeless people who put in more hours into the project than I do. They speak of how contributing to this project has changed their lives and their self-esteem has grown. I give them a forum to work alongside my volunteers who have homes, and in the process we all learn and grow.
And while my homeless and homed volunteers work together, my family also joins in to serve. My wife brings my five year old daughter and two year old son to help. The homeless have quite a reaction to the fact that my group doesn’t treat them as a worthless group to be feared. And I do this even if they’re not appreciative, or if they’re lazy, or if they have given up on life. I don’t seek to serve the deserving and the appreciative. If someone is hungry, they get food. If they are cold, they get clothes. All get love formed by Christ who loved us. I believe in preemptive love that serves first and asks questions later.
So, dignity? I think we dignify the homeless just fine.
Second, the mayor’s statement implies our work amounts to (his actual words): “opening a car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.” I think I have covered this enough in my above point. Living down to the mayor’s caricature of my work would be un-Christian.
Third, the mayor says we don’t work hard enough to attach the homeless to needed services. Actually, I have to work quite hard at this, and I work harder week after week as the mayor closes and defunds more of the programs the homeless need. But of the slim options this city has left us, though they have added some others, I network all week to get people to those who know where they can go. If someone needs drug counseling in addition to my spiritual care, I know to whom he should speak. If a woman is in need of prenatal care, I know where to send her for that. In short, I think it’s the mayor and his policies that are keeping the homeless from care, not my street outreach.
Fourth, it seems like such an easy thing for us to move indoors. This is the usual retort of people naive to the realities of intensely urban ministry. One of the largest indoor kitchens has been defunded and closed by the city, eliminating hundreds of daily meals, nurses, counselors and beds. The places that I know of who come in anyway close to matching this program I can count on one hand, and a few of those are dilapidated buildings infested with rats and bugs (I’ve seen this with my own eyes, by the way).
Most of the places that serve food in a cafeteria do so once or twice a week due to the high cost and difficulty in finding volunteers. The comment that it should be easy to find a place for me to serve inside sounds reasonable to someone who doesn’t know the cost of space in downtown Philadelphia. Even if we rent from an existing church or agency, the cost would be pretty high to cover our portion of that organization’s insurance, utilities and staff people to manage our work. And even if we did find somewhere, the sheer lack of such options would eliminate a major food source for the hungry.
If we were to hypothetically raise the funds to start our own kitchen, something that could cost millions, we have a year of bureaucratic red tape to manage. Even if we could afford it, and let’s say we could satisfy the city, to be eligible for the license we have to have a petition signed by the residents within a four block radius of the proposed location. In downtown Philadelphia, that petition could require tens of thousands of names of people who are likely opposed to a kitchen moving into their neighborhood.
To bring this all together, I’ll make a few closing remarks to put the day-to-day reality into perspective.
As of the date of my writing this article, we have 1,544 beds in shelters for around 6,000 homeless people (the number is our best guess). By the end of spring, one more city-funded shelter will close, bringing the number of beds down to 1,244 as the population of the homeless community here continues to rise. After someone is lucky enough to grab a bed, or find a space in a building or with someone else, the number of people sleeping on the streets is anywhere between 500-1000 every night. I can name less than five indoor cafeterias who can handle 500 people for food only, not to mention the sheer food cost associated with the operation.
Not only is the homeless population underserved, but I also work with the tens of thousands of people who have homes, but no food in the cupboard. I know of children who receive free lunch at school, only to go hungry at home if we (and those like us) didn’t feed them from the parks. Women and their children show us a particularly sad reality of homeless life—a woman can find a place to stay easier than a man. She can shack up with some guy she doesn’t know, exchanging sex for a roof over her children’s heads, water for their baths and heat during the winter. This is common as she waits for years on the list for subsidized housing.
In conclusion, I oppose Mayor Nutter’s ban on feeding the homeless in public. I provide a necessary service in accordance with the privileges of my religion to serve the poor. Do I think serving in Love Park is ideal? No. I want better, but I also have to work with what I have been given. I also want the relief workers to band together and think strategically about serving the needs of the poor. I want safe food handling procedures to be followed by everyone who serves. What I don’t want is a set of policies that seek to solve homelessness by starving the poor out of our city so they won’t be seen by tourists. We can do better than that.
I have one standard question I ask myself in establishing what I consider to be my best practices in regards to the poor: What would I do if they were my own children? I answer the question and act accordingly. I hope the mayor will do the same.