Loving Those Living Outside (as long as they look a certain way)
Though I don’t have time to read tons articles and blogs, I do try and read a few each week. This week I read one with the simple title of “A Homeless Man and His Blackberry.” (You can read it here.) As I read through the article, I was struck by numerous things. For one, I liked that that author, Kat Ascharya, brought humanity to one of our friends living outside. I also liked that she brought in statistics and facts that are not usually present in our culture and media in discussions on houselessness and poverty. And it showed some of the complexities that are often overlooked regarding people who live outside.
So I finished reading, tweeted it, and moved on, as I do with many articles I read. Yet something in that article kept bugging me, like there was some element that I had missed that was important. So when I got home, I read through it again. And one line jumped out at me. Ascharya was in the middle of talking about cell phones, an item once considered a luxury but is becoming more and more something we can’t live without as a society. Regarding the image of someone who lives outside talking on a cell phone, she writes, “Even the most progressive areas of the country can show a certain callousness to what poverty should look and feel like.” This struck me because it is something that I have been guilty of myself.
As someone who spends times every week with people living outside, I can get quite angry when people sum up the complexity of issues and experiences faced by my friends outside into short bits of critique and advice. “If they would just get a job, they could get out of where they are.” “With a little hard work, they could make something happen.” “They should have something like a phone if they expect to save enough to get off the street.” These are all things I have heard, and they all make me angry, because they almost always involve middle class people projecting their own reality into the situations of others, and not only judging them, but judging them by their own privileged standards.
So when I read that line in the article, what struck me was how much I can do the same thing in regards to what houselessness should look like. I will see one of my friends with a phone, or a nicer bike than I have, or a computer, and my gut reaction is, “Well, they can afford that, so they must not be in that bad of a place.” I have ideas of what someone living outside should look like, and even thought I know in my brain that it is far more complex than that, I still find myself having that reaction when houselessness doesn’t look a certain way.
The problem isn’t just with me (though I have much to work on), but with our society as a whole, in which I learned how to view those in poverty and living outside. The ugly truth is we want people in poverty to look a certain way, and we are more willing to help people who fit our ideas of what houselessness and poverty should look like. When we see someone living on the streets who has a phone, we think they are just fine, because someone who is really needy would not have a phone. This helps us ignore the truth, which is that the reality of houseless and poverty is much more complex then we like to realize, and that in our society we all participate in a system that makes it difficult for hose in poverty to move out.
And for those of us that follow Jesus, it shows us how vital it is that we always take the road that is more relational. We cannot just lump those living outside, who are created in the image of God, into “the homeless” or “the poor,” and think we know about their lives. We are called to love them, see them as human beings, and listen to their stories and experiences. For though we may disagree on how we as a society respond to houselessness, we must agree every person in poverty and living outside is deeply loved by God, and that we are called to love them as such. And we can never reduce their lives and their experiences to societal expectations, but must recognize that everyone has a unique story, and as followers of Jesus, that story, and the person at the center of it, is important to God.