Last week I was greatly disturbed by the news that Columbia, S.C., has passed an ordinance to make homelessness a crime. They are proposing to build a facility that will house about 250 persons outside the city limits for the homeless people who will be picked up by police. They will be confined to that area. One of their problems is that the city has approximately 1,500 homeless people so one wonders what the plan is for the remainder of their homeless population.
Along with this plan, citizens with homes are being encouraged to call police if they see a homeless person so the person can be removed from the city limits. Unfortunately, Columbia is among many cities, including Macon and Atlanta, that have passed ordinances hostile toward homeless people. Even though we are living in the 21st century, we continue to be plagued by 17th century ideas that emanated from the English Poor Law, as well as earlier ideas informed by Calvinist theology about the role of work in bringing glory to God.
The underlying principle that the poor were poor because of some type of personal defect made it possible to move away from earlier ideas that supported the notion of the need to provide for everyone in the community. This was the way that many had behaved in early Colonial days and thankfully there are still many of us who believe that everyone needs to have the basic necessities of life.
It continues to be clear to me that it is easy to pass the kinds of ordinances that we are seeing because folks who are crafting these laws do not see any connection between themselves and the people they love and those who are poor.
It does not take much to change that notion. All of the people who are in positions of power should have to live for awhile on the street. They need to live in a homeless shelter for some time and have to get their meals at soup kitchens and visit the places that offer showers on designated days. Then, they need to work on the ordinances and I think there would be a chance for the crafting of laws that take into consideration the absurdity of making poverty a crime.
Of course people are homeless for many reasons and those of us who have had the good fortune not to have to live without a home need to be filled with enough gratitude to move us to compassion for those who, for whatever reasons, have lost their homes. Those of us with homes need to voice our total outrage toward any law that wishes to make homelessness a crime. We, who have homes, cannot rest until our communities find better ways to respond to the growing population of homeless people.
We cannot sustain ourselves as a free society when we continue to insist that the best way to approach all those who don’t fit into the ideal norm is to rid ourselves of them in one way or another. So we arrest undocumented folks. We imprison young African-American males and now we are making it a crime to be poor.
The first, and very important step, is to see yourself in the homeless person and then to see yourself as the homeless person. It takes a bit of time, it takes the willingness to become vulnerable and open to the discomfort that such awareness will call us into.
Those of us who know that we have to love our neighbor as ourselves and that everyone is our neighbor have to speak up, stand up and make it clear that this act of making poverty, and its expression through homelessness, a crime will not be done in our names. Our democracy is depending upon us.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.