Homelessness and the Rock from which we were Hewn....
Sermon for Sunday, August 25, 2017 (Proper 16)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
Before I knew that I was coming here to St. James, Fr. Ron asked if I would be willing to talk to you about homelessness since I serve on the Board of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center1. So I’m going to do it today. Homelessness says a lot about God’s mission; what God is already up to in in our neighborhoods, right here in SECT. God has a mission to heal, reconcile, and restore all of creation, and God does that by working THROUGH people like you, and me, and the homeless, all of us who are also a part of the problem… a part of the reason God has a mission in the first place. The whole arc of the bible is not about how evil came into the world, but rather, what God is doing about it and who he is working through to rescue creation from the forces of chaos. Homelessness is a part of that chaos in Southeast CT, and the people God is working through will surprise you.
I got involved in homelessness through my home Parish of St. James in New London where the overnight shelter was. You would go to coffee hour and walk through the valley of 50 beds on Sunday mornings. For some of us, that’s exactly what the church should be doing, right? But for others, the shelter was less than a good idea, and before long, there were serious divisions. Part of what I learned was to come to a deeper understanding about the folks I disagreed with and to love them for it. Part of the good news of Jesus Christ is that difference and conflict does not have to turn into violence and hate; the Spirit can transform that conflict through resurrection power, into something new and incredible and I was a witness to resurrection power and healing at St. James.
I was asked to lead a team from all sides of the conflict to discern what we should do. We started in the Spring and finished in August, and throughout, our group met, prayed, studied, and talked about homelessness. We started in deep disagreement; I had no idea how we were going to get through it, but the transformation of hearts in that group was incredible. By the end, we were 100% in agreement that the shelter should stay as long as it was needed; it could move two floors down where there was more space and get it out of coffee hour, and that’s just what we did. I learned three things: First, I thought I knew all about homelessness. I learned that I didn’t know a thing. Second, I learned that I had some talents… some gifts of the Holy Spirit, that I could use with others on this issue, and soon Cathy Zall asked me to join the Board, where I still serve today. Finally, I witnessed the resurrection-power of Jesus Christ in the transformation of hearts that summer. And since I have witnessed that power, I see it all the time now, including here.
HHC serves about 650 homeless neighbors annually who come from every place in SE Connecticut, including Preston. The causes of homelessness are all over the map, and I’ve learned that there is just not a single cause or solution. We do three things:
- First, we provide emergency shelter, safety, and hospitality to neighbors in the region. You really appreciate this place is when you see the panic on the face of a new guest as she enters that door for the first time, and the sense of relief she feels later that she is in good hands, and it is going to be all right. Homeless people, particularly LGBT youth are far more vulnerable to violence and crime, so having a place of safety is a big part of emergency shelter.
- Second, we get people housed. Years ago, folks thought that the homeless need to be made ready for housing; solve their drug problems, learn some life skills, get a job. But while waiting for those things to happen, nobody was ever ready, so few got housed. Homeless neighbors come with many problems, but they have one big problem: no house! So now, we focus on THAT like a laser-beam. Once people have the stability of a house, other problems are far more manageable. We know that if a person is rapidly rehoused, 85% of them will stay housed. Most guests are with us for less than two weeks and we don’t see them again. Many still live with deep poverty, but homelessness is not one of their challenges.
- Finally, while people are with us, we help them tackle other problems. It might be $20 to get a birth certificate, something you can’t get a job without. Can you imagine not being able to work because you can’t afford a $20 birth certificate. Well if that’s all it takes, we’re going to do it. We had a guest who got a job on a fishing trawler. All he needed to get out of homelessness was fishing clothes; we were all over that, and he looked great! Another man got an apartment but had no or bed. We can do beds. Some people have a job but just need first month’s rent and security deposit. Should they be homeless until they save it up? No way, we’re going to help so they can get out of the shelter and into a house as fast as possible.
One of the services we provide is medical respite; seven beds where sick or injured people can heal, as close to living in a home as we can make it. The stability of a home makes healing go much better. Early on, we learned how hard it was for homeless guests to heal; they never would. While on chemo-therapy for cancer, out the door and into the streets they would go at 7 AM. Often, they would just stop their treatment and would end up in the emergency room again. So we built the bottom floor of our shelter as a respite center. It is managed by the Community Health Center and Visiting Nurses come as well. One of the consequences of this is that other homeless guests have medical needs too, so the whole guest community got served through this effort.
There’s some good news in the State of CT; Veterans are fully housed. One shows up to the door from time to time, but there are resources to get them housed right away. So there are no homeless veterans in CT. Likewise, the chronically homeless are housed. This is trickier, because chronic homelessness is often tied to mental illness, and some of those folks will reject housing solutions. In every case, they have been matched with housing. Our experience is that we do get folks who cycle through the shelter many times. These are some of the hardest cases, particularly when there is both mental health and substance abuse issues. We don’t shy away from this though, it just takes enormous patience with a number of organizations. And by the way, that mental hospital down the road here was been replaced by the prison system. I’m not sure that we traded up there. So this is an overview of HHC from the Social Services perspective, and any Rotary Club, United Way, or NAVY volunteer would find it very satisfying. But there is a uniquely Christian experience that is possible to have there, that I want to illustrate with a story.
I carry my cup of shelter-coffee from the counter to the table and sit down with two men. "Hello" I say "How's it going?" A short response; then silence. It feels uncomfortable... I focus on the coffee. What should I say? Should I ask how they ended up here? My heart tells me no, so I just sit quietly. One of them says; "I had a dream the other night". "Really" I say, “Tell me about it..." His dream story is animated, funny, heartbreaking, and insightful... I listen carefully... smile at the funny parts... furl my brow at the hard points... ask a question after while. "I don't know what it means" he says, but then he starts to make connections; good ones. I do too. I'm not there to solve his problem. I am called by Jesus to be with him for no reason at all, other than as a friend who enjoys his company and his story for their own sake. I'm not there to save him; he's the one saving me. He is the one with gifts he is eager to share... that’s a Christian experience.
See, this is the rock from which we were hewn; this is the quarry from which we were dug. We might think we are supposed volunteer in a homeless shelter because we think we are being the Good Samaritan… going in there with our donkey and first aid kit to save these poor people with all our time, talents and treasure. The shocking truth is that we are the ones in the ditch, the ones who need saving. And the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus comes to us, disguised as a Samaritan, disguised as our enemy: as a Muslim, as a homeless man with a dream-story, as a prisoner in York, as a young pregnant teen, as a elderly neighbor who can’t cut his grass, as an old widow isolated in her hoarder’s house, as a Trump or a Clinton supporter… In this disguise, Jesus binds our wounds and carries us to a place of safety. By working at that shelter, at that OWL lunch, at that Fish dinner, by sharing a meal with our neighbors, we are being saved. “Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out…" This is the rock from which we were hewn; this is the quarry from which we were dug and it looks nothing like we think it should. Thanks be to God.
1. Learn more about the New London Homeless Hospitality Center at their website and on Facebook. You can support them by making a donation to their used furniture store, Homeward Bound Treasurers in New London; and they are happy to pick it up for you!