Come unto me, you tired ones–try our spikes

28 Apr

“Sorry, no room in the inn.” “Come unto me you who are weary and heavy-laden. These aphorisms came immediately to mind when I just recently–for the first time, I must admit–ran across the photos that appear below.  Both of these are from the New Testament, to which I add a third from the Letter of James: “What good is it to wish a person peace and well-being when that person stands in need of food or clothing or shelter?”

I’ve been aware of homeless persons ever since I worked in a church in Albuquerque and then moved to Chicago in the 1950s. My relationship to them was mainly to give them a few dollars or buy them a sandwich. The church had a discretionary fund (the “Good Shepherd Fund”), which allowed me to send them to a diner across the street. We had an agreement with the diner that anyone we sent would be served a meal, billed to the church. I officiated at two burials, arranged by a charitable mortuary, for homeless men who died with no known relatives. When I lived briefly, in the 1980s, in Berkeley, California, where good year-round weather attracts people who are down and out, I noted that the city set aside areas where those who lived in their cars could park unmolested for the nights. The sprawling university campus offered many secluded spots for sleeping. But I never probed more deeply into the issues of homelessness.

I know that homelessness is a problem for cities, but it never dawned on me that we would lay down beds of spikes to make open spaces unsleepable. A Google search reveals that cities around our country and in Europe are taking recourse to spikes–see the internet links at the end of this piece.

We know that homeless men and women want to live in decent lodgings, but for many reasons cannot–poverty being the main reason. We don’t provide housing (dormitory-like shelters don’t qualify as proper housing), but we want them out of sight. As one blogger writes, “we should not presume to think that sitting and sleeping is the only major front that People Who Surely Don’t Have Anything Against the Homeless But Would Rather Not Be Reminded Of Their Existence are waging.” ( In 2006, Orlando, Florida, passed an ordinance against feeding the homeless in public. Several charitable groups have been the object of legal measures taken by the city to halt their efforts to provide food for the homeless who had settled in a public park.

imageWhat’s the underlying issue here? We have come dangerously close to accepting the homeless situation as a problem that we just can’t solve. We don’t seem to have the will to solve it. Susan Sarandon gives us a clue: “If you walk down the street and see someone in a box, you have a choice. That person is either the other and you’re fearful of them, or that person is an extension of your family.” Homeless men and women are the Other, and since pre-historic times we have been unable to live satisfactorily with Others. We’ve frequently killed them, ostracized them, persecuted them, and otherwise gotten them away from ourselves. Some communities don’t want mosques in their midst, or half-way houses, or homeless shelters, or food pantries.

Jesus said and did a great deal about the Other. He spoke about the Neighbor and love for the Neighbor. When he was asked, “Who is my neighbor,” he pointed to every person we meet. Susan Sarandon had it right when she compared the Other to our family.

I recall an incident from the 1960s in Hyde Park, Chicago. Some readers may know that Hyde Park prides itself on being a liberal community. As a student, I was working for alderman Leon Despres in an effort to have public housing units included in the urban renewal project that was getting underway–the first of its kind in the nation. Architects drew up plans that placed a dozen units of public housing in the center of the project. A public hearing was scheduled, and I expected widespread approval of our efforts. However, to my surprise, there was opposition to the public housing by some people who complained, “I paid a lot of money for a townhouse in this area, and the public housing units look just like my house. People won’t be able to tell the difference.” The Other–we don’t want them to look like family. Homeless persons show that they understand this when they say, “We are unwanted persons.”

Today, the Others are getting closer and closer. In previous centuries, white Europeans went to the lands of the Others and dominated them in imperial fashion. Now the Other has come to Europe and the United States–and every nation involved is feeling threatened. Britain no longer accepts every resident from a Commonwealth country as a citizen. Germany restricts rights of the Turks (mostly Muslim), who came in the 1950s because Germany suffered from a labor shortage. France, Denmark, and others experience frequent protests against foreigners. The European Union wants North African countries to prevent refugees from sailing to Italy. Trends indicate that within forty years white Americans will be only a minority of the nation’s population. We recall that we welcomed Africans to our shores, beginning in the 1600s and continuing until the 1860s–as slave laborers. As I write, Baltimore is being devastated, as was Watts, Los Angeles, and the west side of Chicago in the mid-1960s. These are upheavals against the Other, far from viewing them as family.

You may not agree that the homeless are viewed by many of us as Other, not neighbor, not family. But I cite Dennis Kucinich: “We have weapons of mass destruction we have to address here at home. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction. Unemployment is a weapon of mass destruction.” I would add that lack of sensitivity for and defensive action against the Other are also weapons of mass destruction.

We have a deep spiritual issue–alongside the political and economic dimensions–and I am quite sure that spikes are not the answer.

Phil Hefner 4/28/2015

Some useful links:…0.0…1ac.1.DFYk8HFbTRo

One Response to “Come unto me, you tired ones–try our spikes”

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