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Street Culture

The world of homelessness and street life in downtown San Diego is like an alternative society with a culture of its own. Like any other culture, it has its own slang, social hierarchy, norms for behavior, values, and taboos. Maybe this will turn into a series of posts, but for now, here are just a few notable features that I’ve noticed so far about “street culture”:

1) Homeless folks have an eye for the usefulness in things that most people ignore.
Resourcefulness is highly valued in street culture. People at the Ladle are constantly showing me things they’ve made from other objects: a belt of shoe strings woven together, a flute made from a metal pipe, an entire bicycle made out of miscellaneous objects. One time a guy showed me a picture of the makeshift “shower” he had constructed on the edge of the freeway, using the sprinkler system and lots of creativity.

2) People often form family-like bonds with the friends that they “camp” with every night.
Sleeping alone outside at night in a big city is dangerous for anyone. While there are many “loners” who sleep in hidden alleys or canyons, there are also many pseudo-families of people who sleep next to each other every night. These groups are often highly loyal, and they take care of each other. If someone has to be somewhere during the day, someone else will watch their stuff for them while they’re gone. Or if someone is given food by a passerby, they’ll bring it back for the whole group. They’ll share other resources too, such as blankets, clothes, tarps, cardboard…as well as cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. Sleeping in groups provides protection at night and companionship during the day. For some people, this is why it’s so hard to transition back into “normal” society after being on the streets for a while; because their group of friends under the I-5 bridge or on the corner of 16th & Island was the closest thing to family they had ever experienced.

3) Those with severe delusions and other forms of severe mental illness are taken care of, not shunned.
I’m often amazed at how tolerant the homeless community is of its members who suffer from severe delusions or paranoia. Those who are neurotypical, as well as those with less severe mental illnesses, are often highly conscientious of these folks, making sure they stay fed, clothed, and protected from danger. People are valued for their personalities, their companionship, their stories and insights, even if their perception of the world is highly distorted by brain diseases. Many times I’ve seen homeless folks exhibit levels of patience and compassion toward their mentally ill friends that would trump that of even the most experienced nurse or social worker. If only our larger society could learn to treat the severely mentally ill with that same level of understanding and care!

Reflection for Good Friday

One of the meanings of Good Friday is that God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, has plunged the depths of human suffering. He picked up the cup of agony and drank every last drop.

Every year in San Diego, on Good Friday, a group of Christians walks through downtown, reenacting the stations of the cross and reflecting on a different type of human suffering at each stop. This year they made a stop at our church, First Presbyterian, for the third station of the cross: when Jesus falls the first time. Here is the reflection I gave on homelessness in connection with that moment in Jesus’ journey to the cross.

Good Friday Walk with the Suffering
Jesus Falls the First Time – Homelessness

The suffering of homelessness is the suffering of alienation, social stigma, loneliness, estrangement from family, and fear of people. It’s being a victim of violence, sexual violence, and verbal abuse. It’s being unable to shake the feeling of futility that things will never change. It’s aches and pains, addictive cravings, psychological stress, hunger, and persistent insomnia. It’s being wet and shivering all night long. It’s constant, unrelenting vigilance about the safety of your belongings and your own body. It’s mind-numbing boredom. It’s PTSD, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse disorder, all at the same time, and maybe with some diabetes, heart disease, Hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS thrown in. It’s falling down and feeling like you can’t get up.

Homeless people are extremely diverse. I’ve met pastors, rabbis, scholars, business owners, and engineers who have ended up on the streets. I’ve also met men who have been gang members since childhood, and women who have been sold for sex for just as long. They all share at least one thing: the belief that their homelessness means they’re too messed up, too dysfunctional, and too broken for “society” to want them.

On Good Friday we praise God because, miracle of miracles, we—the human race—are not too messed up, dysfunctional, or broken for him to want us. In fact, he wants us so much that he suffered our dysfunction and brokenness in his own body, in order to give us his health and wholeness in return.

When we show love to the homeless, we display the love of God which searches the streets and alleys for the poor, the maimed, the crippled, and the blind, and compels them to come into his great feast (Luke 14:21-23). As lovers of God, may we humbly kneel next to those who have fallen down and gently encourage them to stand up again.

Lord Jesus, we bring before you the suffering of the homeless. Give us the wisdom, patience, and compassion to extend kindness and friendship to the many homeless folks around us. Give guidance to our civic leaders as they face the complex and systemic issues that drive homelessness in our city. Give guidance to our churches as they care for the spiritual and physical needs of our neighbors on the streets. We pray for justice, hope, restored relationships, healed bodies and minds. We thank you for your suffering and for your amazing love for us. Amen

Homelessness and Mental Illness

Whenever I answer the “what do you do for work?” question, one of the follow-up questions I almost always get is: “How many people are homeless because of mental illness?” It’s a logical question. Walking around downtown San Diego, or nearly any city in America, it won’t take long before you come across someone with noticeably poor hygiene who appears to be talking, often angrily, to the air. Seeing that same snapshot over and over again creates a certain impression.

Statistically, there’s a big correlation between mental illness and homelessness. Nearly a third of homeless people in San Diego last year were willing to admit to strangers (volunteer interviewers) that their mental issues were a significant factor in their continued homelessness. And that’s just self-reporting; plenty of others would be embarrassed to admit something like that, or are in denial.

The problem is that, behind the “homelessness and mental illness” question, there are often some underlying assumptions being made. Assumptions about who is worth helping, who is capable of change, who is worth the investment–and who isn’t.

Nothing has the power to change someone’s perspective like personal experience: getting to know mentally ill homeless folks on a personal level, hearing their stories, learning to love their idiosyncrasies, and yes, being driven crazy by their unreasonableness. You start to see that the snapshot of someone talking to the air downtown is just that: a snapshot. You see people on their good days, not just their bad days. You start to see that the fears, loves, and hates going on beneath the surface of the delusions are a lot more relateable–more normal–than they first appeared. And you slowly begin to realize how street life itself is a cause, not just an effect, of mental problems.

Consider our dear friend, Don. Don has schizophrenia and was homeless for four decades on the streets of San Diego. On the streets, Don had an unkempt beard, gnarly fingernails, a quick temper, and a tendency to growl and bite his own fist when he got upset. At first glance, it was hard to know how to help someone like him. Today, Don is being taken care of in a nursing home. His needs are met and he has a safe and stable place to live, perhaps for the first time in his adult life. Although his physical health is declining, his mental health is better than we’ve ever seen it. He still has some symptoms of schizophrenia and anxiety disorder, but he is calm, easy to talk to, clean-shaven, and content. Best of all, he has a clear and unwavering faith in Jesus.

Mental illness is a contributing factor in many people’s homelessness. But it is not the totality of who someone is, and it does not have to be the end of their story.

The Role of the Church

Even though the Christian Church has fallen out of fashion in many modern circles, we see every week (and sometimes every day) that people in crisis still turn to the Church for solace, banking on the kindness of God’s people. Especially because our church building is so iconic and so “churchy,” people frequently knock on our doors seeking everything from a bathroom, to a borrowed phone, to a word of encouragement or a shoulder to cry on. It’s striking to think that people still know that we as Christians are commanded by God to help the poor and show mercy to the hurting. In desperate moments, they depend on us to fulfill that commandment – and so, they show up at church.

Jesus’s greatest gift to the world is the gift of himself. Likewise, the greatest gift his people can give is the gift of themselves as Jesus makes himself known through them. When it comes to the plight of homelessness, the funding and services provided by government agencies are highly needed. And yet, the role of the Church – of people giving of themselves to others with the love of Christ – is invaluable and irreplaceable. Anyone can throw money at homelessness. It’s the Church that throws people.

For Christians, this means we ought to remember our sacred obligation to personally engage with the homeless and get to know them as fellow human beings, rather than outsourcing them as a “problem” for the government to deal with. It’s not the job of social services to love people. That’s our job as imitators of Christ.

For policy makers and service providers, this means that the Church’s role in the homeless community should not be overlooked. Many of the people we serve don’t trust anyone; and yet they trust us, as the only people who see them as people and love them with God’s love. This gives us a level of access into people’s lives that professional agencies need, and yet often miss.

I saw this happen today. One of our Ladle guests is enrolled in a local program for mentally ill homeless seniors. This morning, I was texting with his nurse about tracking him down and changing his medication. By building collaboration between the social service agency and our church, we are both able to serve and care for him so much better than either of us could do alone.