Homeless But Grateful
What’s your earliest memory that you had faith?
“Probably about eleven. My mom was made aware of some issues that were going on at home regarding my safety. They came out and told her. She said ‘well you can just keep her I don’t need her’ and she took off. So it was like ‘what?’ So, but I know that I didn’t make it through that because I didn’t want to. I didn’t – I begged not to make it through and then – But here I am 42 years old and still kicking so.”
Tell me about other times in your life where you feel like you’ve had to rely upon God.
“Recently with my health issues. I just recently got diagnosed with some major cancer issues. And I’ve had a pretty doozy of a time. I’ve been on life support twice. Still kicking. Why? I don’t know. But I believe I’m here to teach myself some more things and teach other people cause there has to be a better way of life. There has to be. If I can prevent somebody from going through anything that I’ve gone through then that means that I’ve got to. I mean they gave me two years to live after I was diagnosed. And I’m still here. And that’s by faith and the will of God because; that’s not me. I’ve tried to end my life. I’m still here.”
What are you most grateful for?
“Not where I live now but the opportunity to have lived it and continue living it and hopefully come back and make it better. For even myself, my children, somebody else, or some young man, woman out there on the street. Like now I’m back on the streets and stuff like that so that’s a lot tougher to digest. A lot. But again, I made it through the night and I’m here so it’s like ‘okay let’s go’. Let’s see what we can produce today. What can happen. As long as I have something positive coming in and I know that there’s something there.”
And when I show people the picture we’re going to make of you what do you want me to tell them about you?
“That I’m a strong independent woman who realized I’m nobody but God.”
Amen. Thank you so much for doing this.
“Of course you made me cry.”
Eva Reyna lives on the streets of Albuquerque like many other Native people (Navajo in her case). Eva is the first homeless person I have ever interviewed for Portraits In Faith. I met her at a center that helps Native homeless with food and clothing and a place to go during the day. Eva was known to my PIF producer, Kim Delfina Gleason, from previous work she has done with the homeless.
This experience surprised me. She wasn’t unclean. She was thoughtful and she was fully present. It did not appear that she was either an alcoholic or a drug addict. She was simply a very poor woman who was without a home living on the streets with her husband. Eva Reyna’s mother did not want her once the authorities told her about abuse of Eva in their home. Her mother told them to keep her, that she didn’t want her. And, yet, Eva survived and continues to survive. She has cancer today and has survived suicide attempts. But she survives and believes she has something to teach others, especially others on the street.
What really causes homelessness?
I went seeking data on what causes homelessness and whether it matched my own beliefs. My beliefs, like many, are that the homeless are mentally ill, drug addicts, and that any money I give someone on the streets will be used for more drugs and alcohol. But apparently the data shows differently.
An excellent article by Catherine Oliphant in Elephant Journal shared these statistics from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty:
- For women in particular, domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness.
- The top causes of homelessness among families were lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low wages, in that order.
- The top four causes of homelessness among unaccompanied individuals were lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, mental illness and the lack of needed services (also in that order).
- Substance abuse and mental illness were the least common of the causes for homelessness.
If domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness among women and affordable housing the leading cause for families, I cannot be judging or fearing the homeless in the ways I have been judging and avoiding historically.
What are the spiritual issues for the homeless?
I reached out to my dear friend and colleague, Karen Patterson, for perspective on spiritual issues faced by the homeless from her years working in the community. I was struck by how all of these things are issues we all face but for the homeless they are extreme and life-threatening
- Loss: While everyone is impacted by loss, for those in and out of homelessness, soul-crushing losses can be ongoing, not a handful of major events over a lifetime. (Abandonment, death, eviction, rejection, jobs, dignity, precious possessions, etc.) It is important to note that I have been the recipient of rich blessings from people who had lost everything – these are people who had a deep awareness of their spiritual being.
- Dignity: As humans, we are designed to create and contribute. This is not just about productivity. It is part of how we worship and quickens our spirit. One man I developed a relationship with was an incredibly talented painter. While his livelihood was painting house interiors, he approached each project as if it were creating a masterpiece. He was sought after for painting interiors of high-end homes. Through a series of unfortunate events he could not maintain consistent employment and ended up living on a river bank.
- Weariness: First there is being hungry. There is a state of living in ‘survival mode’ which can lead to exhaustion. This may lead to weariness of soul and a spiritual starvation. It is even more complicated when children are involved. I have seen exhaustion from being in constant survival mode.
- Safety & Stability: The uncertainty of life is a way of life for people dealing with homelessness. It can lead a person to be less reliant on the physical and seek out a more spiritual existence. However, living without safety and shelter can be dangerous. People who are living on the streets are exposed to unsanitary conditions, assault, lice, and diseases. These physical threats are a constant reminder of the injustices and unfairness of life and may lead a person to a tormented place like Job, in the Old Testament of The Bible who questioned why God would send all this suffering.
- Rejection: You and I have the resources to access materials, be in relationships, go to retreats, places of worship to nourish our spirits. It is different for people living with homelessness. They do not have the same access or acceptance. That does not mean individuals who are homeless can’t find spiritual nourishment from the encouraging people or experience community in shelters, places of worship, in soup kitchens, or in other community dwellings but it is much less readily available. And even if mental illness is not the primary driver of homelessness, it is a confounding factor for many people who are homeless. Social stigmas and discrimination make living with mental illness challenging for all people. Homelessness may increase fear, anxiety, or depression. Overcoming negative thoughts is a spiritual battle. When our basic needs are met and we feel secure, we are better able to cope with mental illness,problems, and illnesses in general.
What are the spiritual issues surrounding homelessness for those of us who are not homeless?
I have sought out a number of sources across religions to help reset my expectations of myself regarding the homeless. There are so many lessons I learned from this investigation:
#1 Stop Dehumanizing: In his “5 principles for ministering to the homeless,”Cameron Presson states:
“we should not be surprised, but should expect to learn from our homeless neighbors. It is not a one-sided affair but a mutual discipleship, and to see yourself as the only teacher is a grave mistake. As Dr. Andy Watts, my professor of Christian ethics has said, ‘We dehumanize people the moment we decide we have nothing to learn from them.’”
I can not think of a better way to do this than making eye contact and greeting each person as a fellow human being and not look away.
#2 Stop Blaming: Mark Horvath in his project, “Invisible People,” says:
“there is a direct correlation between what the general public perceives about homelessness and how it affects policy change. Most people blame homelessness on the person experiencing it instead of the increasing shortage of affordable housing, lack of employment, a living wage or the countless reasons that put a person at risk. This lack of understanding creates a dangerous cycle of misconception that leads to the inability to effectively address the root causes of homelessness.”
So when I encounter a homeless person I need to see a victim and not a perpetrator of their own fate.
#3 Practice Acts of Compassion AND Engage In Advocacy: A new friend and person I greatly admire is Brian McLaren, a former pastor turned author and activist to bring about a more progressive Christian church. When I asked Brian about the spiritual issues of homelessness for those who have home, he shared this story:
“Back in about 1982, I received a call from a refugee resettlement organization. They had a Cambodian family arriving late that night, and their sponsors backed out at the last minute. Would Grace and I be willing to take them in? We said yes, and that opened us up to one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives. A family of three moved in with us. We found out we couldn’t get them an apartment legally … which meant they stayed with us for ten months. After that, we took in another Cambodian family, a Vietnamese family, and some Ethiopians. In addition, we took in some homeless Americans, both of whom had mental health issues and turned out to be somewhat dangerous. Through all of this, it became clear to me that acts of compassion have to be matched with the work of advocacy, to be sure we have laws passed that help people get housing. Individuals have to do what they can, but the problems are too big for generous individuals to handle alone. So I see the two kinds of work – compassion and advocacy – as going hand in hand. In fact, compassion is often a ‘gateway drug’ into advocacy.
#4 Work to Prevent Homelessness: Rabbi Lucy Dinner shares a Jewish understanding of what we must do for homelessness:
“My heritage teaches that we have an obligation to support and fortify one another. The book of Leviticus instructs, ‘If your neighbor becomes poor … then you shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you.’ (Leviticus 25:35). The commentator Rashi teaches: ‘This can be compared to a burden on a donkey: While it is still on the donkey, one [person] may grab hold of it and hold up [the load, but if the donkey] falls to the ground, five cannot raise [the donkey].’ When we educate our population, ensure that everyone has a living wage and housing; we lift up those in need, and we lift our country. When we fail to ensure these safeguards, when we let our brothers and sisters fall to the ground, not even five times the resources can restore them or our community.”
Affordable safe housing for battered women, for those with health care debt, and all those below the poverty line needs to be a priority. I admire greatly the homelessness work which prioritizes housing as first on the list. It is surprisingly obvious to prioritize housing for those who are already homeless.
#5 Change Cultural Norms: I have been puzzled by Jesus’ quote in the Christian Scriptures when Jesus says “there will always be the poor” in response to (likely) Mary Magdalene spreading expensive oil on Jesus’ feet and wiping it with her hair when Judas says they could have fed many poor and hungry. Kurt Vonnegut writes in his book of poems and speeches, Palm Sunday:
“Whatever it was that Jesus really said to Judas was said in Aramaic, of course-and has come to us through Hebrew and Greek and Latin and archaic English. Maybe He only said something a lot like, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.” Perhaps a little something has been lost in translation….I would like to recapture what has been lost. Why? Because I, as a Christ-worshiping agnostic, have seen so much un-Christian impatience with the poor encouraged by the quotation “For the poor always ye have with you.”…If Jesus did in fact say that, it is a divine black joke, well suited to the occasion. It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him for his hypocrisy all the same. ‘Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.’….My own translation does no violence to the words in the Bible. I have changed their order some, not merely to make them into the joke the situation calls for but to harmonize them, too, with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount suggests a mercifulness that can never waver or fade.”
My own friend, Pastor Victoria Loorz, challenges our culture of accepting homelessness as a norm:
“I think the biggest spiritual issue is that homelessness is a thing at all in our culture. And a common thing. How disconnected we are. What we have to do in our souls when we walk by those who are living in the streets without sufficient shelter and usually food. How we have to shut down just a little more each time. How those living without homes sometimes find more acceptance and community on the streets than in their families and in the culture. How this Othering registers fear of “what is mine” in wealthy communities and fear of “i will be next” in other communities. Not all cultures are this way. Homelessness is not a “given” …”there will always be the poor” is as much of an excuse now as it was when it was first said… mental illness, drug abuse, rejection, trauma, income inequality…all issues relatively unimportant to our culture. Left to the non profits, to the churches, to the people with hearts. and inadequately so. It is a red herring annoyance to most cities. a distraction drawing our attention away from our own hardened hearts. I say this in first person plural. I am part of the problem. My small attempts to be part of the solution result in simply forcing myself not to turn away completely, out of sheer overwhelm. There are too many ‘issues’…the culture itself is the issue.”
I remember asking a friend in Israel what the country’s approach to orphanages is. He responded that Israel has no orphanages because there are no orphans who have not been taken in by another family. Just like in countries with socialized medicine there are no bankruptcies caused by medical expenses. I am provoked most of all in this discussion of homelessness that there is even a reason for its existence. We have the global resources today to house the homeless including the refugee. I remember seeing the pictures of the air conditioned tents in Saudi Arabia that can house a million people at a time who are on Hajj but they would not open those to the Syrian refugees. I’m not picking on the Saudi Arabians alone. I am realizing that homelessness is a cultural norm that need not be.
This has been a deep exploration for me on a topic I have never before focused on in Portraits in Faith or in my life. I am grateful to Eva Reyna, her gratitude for life, and her tenacity. Nothing says it better than when I asked Eva what she would like people to know about her, she said, “That I’m a strong independent woman who realizes I’m nobody but God.”