homelessness is here too…
November 19, 2017
Scriptures: Isaiah 58:6-12, portions of Matthew 25
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?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
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.
Portions of Matthew 25…
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;… for I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you…?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was a stranger and you did not welcome me’…Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger… and did not welcome you in?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
Homelessness is not something that many of us spend a lot of time thinking about…probably because most of us have never been so. We pretty much take it for granted that we will have the three essentials: food, clothing, and shelter. Pretty confident that these are things we can count on even if perhaps we wish we had different food to eat from time to time, or newer clothing to wear, or perhaps a nicer place to live in…a better apartment or even a nicer house if we are so blessed as to have one already.
And perhaps we consider the plight of the homeless more at this time of the year when the weather turns cold and nasty and we hear news reports of folks suffering down on the streets of the city or perhaps huddled down in the subway tunnels where at least it is warm if you can abide the company of rats. But I think we seldom think of homelessness as a real problem within our own community and neighborhood here in town. After all how often do we see someone lying on the sidewalk or trying to live out of a cardboard box with a sheet of tin on the top down on Front Street? We do see individuals pushing old shopping carts down the road on occasion but probably do not think that they are looking for a place to sleep at night but rather just collecting bottles or cans for the nickels they will bring. And we know that on occasion, people feel their only recourse after losing an apartment or place to stay is to try and make it for a while living out of their car…but that seems to be very seldom and not therefore unusual and not that striking as a result.
‘Homelessness’ does not come up all that often in our regular conversation although recently it seems it has actually been more of a concern in our prayers together as a church, for several members of our own congregation. And if you were to look at the government statistics you would find that there seems to be strikingly little homelessness in our county. In fact, Putnam County’s Department of Social Services reported a reduction of homeless individuals from 54 to 38 from 2010 to 2016. And this seems like a very low number, until you realize that there are multiple shelters and programs within close proximity that are in fact caring for and providing for many individuals and families who do not have place to call home or a bed of their own on any given night. In effect all of these people, who are not counted in the statistics are ‘homeless’ as well.
So perhaps, like our consideration of local hunger last month which was more about food insecurity or the lack of the availability of adequate food sources, we may need to consider that homelessness also has a similar aspect of insecurity and uncertainty which affects many more individuals than we are aware of. And in addition, we need to remember that all ‘statistics’ are only records of what is actually reported…records of those who are willing to register their predicament and not necessarily those in greatest need and in the greatest struggle…quite possibly not including the poor and the marginalized within our communities and in particular those who are immigrants here without legal documentation. To truly appreciate housing insecurity or injustice surrounding housing issues in our community one needs to consider the hundreds if not thousands here in our own community and throughout the Metro North corridor who do not have adequate, safe, or healthy spaces in which to live.
As an example; a number of years ago when I was in Seminary I was required to do a study of our community regarding a number of issues, one of which was ‘affordable housing’. Having lived in this community for many years I was not aware of many if any such apartments or homes, especially after the American House burned down where our present Town Hall is now located.
And so in preparation for my paper, I set up a meeting with our Town Supervisor, and asked him about affordable housing in Patterson. He admitted that there really was none available and confessed as well that it was a requirement of all the towns in the county to provide this type of housing as a part of any new expansion or development plans. And then what he said next really floored me…he said that in order to sort of ‘comply’, there was an unwritten agreement for the Town to turn a blind eye to overcrowding in available apartments and not to enforce building codes and regulations on these people, most of whom it turned out were recent immigrants and many of whom were undocumented.
And the reason it was so striking to me was not that they were choosing not to enforce a code but that by doing so they were being complicit in allowing injustice to be accepted as the norm. In other words, many single family apartments in town were being used to house as many as 4 to 6 families in extremely crowded and unsafe conditions, due to the Town’s unwillingness to consider their responsibility to provide affordable housing. This practice which still remains in effect results in unacceptable living conditions for all of these families and their children. This is the very definition of ‘housing insecure’ as I see it.
And lastly, throughout the gospels we hear of the need and responsibility for Christians to offer the gift of hospitality to neighbors as well as strangers in need. We heard it in our passage from Matthew this morning where Jesus said ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’. And of late we have had at least two members of our congregation, not strangers at all but rather members of our faith family who have asked for specific prayers and a laying on of hands to assist them in finding housing as they were being forced out of their present circumstances.
And somewhere I find myself wondering why it is that we seem so afraid to open our own homes to our neighbors and friends…although I must admit that I know that the owners of Cascade Farm would not permit me to do so whatsoever. I think that there is a great fear among many of us of being taken advantage of, or of such an arrangement leading to a long term commitment. In fact, years ago the church opened the Fellowship Hall to a young couple in dire need and during a time when we were not really using the building. And unfortunately after an extended time we were forced to ask them to leave as they were not good at keeping the place kept up, clean or usable for any other purpose. But I am not sure to this day if that was entirely their fault or if we as the church shared at least some of the blame. For as we hear in the book of James in Chapter 2, ‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?’ So to just give them a place to stay without seeing to it that we helped them find a way to move forward and to support them spiritually as well makes me wonder if our ‘gift’ of a place to stay was just a bit hollow.
But still I wonder…if we have extra space, might it not perhaps turn out to be a blessing to extend gracious and loving hospitality? Might not the Spirit be placing these needs, from among our own before us to challenge us to trust in reaching out to extend the blessings we have in such abundance? Hebrews Chapter 13, verses 1 and 2 tell us, ‘Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ Now this is not by any means a judgement on anyone, as I admit I feel the least able to do so myself. But perhaps we all can at least put it to prayer, for it is quite clear in the gospels that the Lord is calling us to be a family in more ways than we might be comfortable with.
Suffice it to say that homelessness and housing insecurity are very much a part of our community…and by grace we are at least being challenged to recognize it, to talk about it, and to find ways to support one another as well as those in need around us in seeking to find better solutions for the most vulnerable among us.
May our Lord continue to challenge us even as the Spirit leads us into clearer understanding as to ways in which we can begin to make a real difference for those who find themselves echoing Jesus’ words; ‘foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’.
May our Lord bless these questions and wonderings to our heart’s deeper understanding…