Don’t Feed the Homeless!
One of my efriends posted a message on Facebook this morning that we shouldn’t feed the homeless on Thanksgiving. The tagline is that we should be feeding the homeless in October and April and any and all other times of the year: that we shouldn’t feed the homeless exclusively on Thanksgiving.
This message is right, of course. When I go to a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving to plop mashed potatoes on someone’s tray, it is more about me trying to make myself feel good than it is about the person holding the tray. Although I’ve done a good thing, it is not the justice to which Jesus calls us me.
A family I am friends with knows about homelessness. This family consists of two moms and six kids. Several years ago they lived in a nice home with multiple bedrooms, a nice living room, a fenced-in front yard, a swimming pool–and affordable rent. In addition to these eight people, the mom of one of the moms and her two boys lived in the home with them. One day the youngest child slipped away into a closet; he was playing with a lighter, and he set a fire that soon engulfed the house in flames. Everyone in the household got out safely and–amazingly–uninjured. But they had lost everything but the clothing they were wearing at the time.
The local church to which I belong took a special offering to help them get started again, and also donated some clothing. Church people–many of whom are also low-income–appreciated that this could be any of us, so many gave generously. And we felt good about ourselves.
Then the hard part started for this family. They started looking for a new place to live. Their landlord had every intent of rebuilding, and was willing to have them live in the home again, but it would be awhile before that even got started. This family needed a place to live immediately.
They determined that it would be completely unfeasible for them to find another place for all eleven of them. The mom / grandmother and her two sons were able to find a place before too long. The two moms with the six kids did not. In addition to the sheer size of their family, they had other issues: one of the moms is undocumented and not able to seek employment; tatoos and body piercings were off-putting to some potential landlords; and their ability to pay rent was limited. Despite good references from the old landlord, the pastor of the church, the employer of the other mom, etc., they would get down to being among the final renters to be considered–and then would be turned away.
They moved into the garage of a relative.
The church again got involved, holding a drive to collect jackets and sweaters, blankets and sheets–lots of blankets, because living on a concrete slab in an uninsulated building in the winter (even here in Southern California) is cold.
They had access to a bathroom in the home, which is something many homeless people don’t have access to. Once or twice a week, the relative let them use the kitchen for cooking; otherwise they did have a small refrigerator and a hot plate in their garage space.
This went on and on. Day after day, week after week, month after month for over a year. Although the kids were fed and clothed with a roof over their heads, a neighbor called social services. The social worker gave them 30 days in which to find a place or take the kids away (making it know that even that was beyond any legal requirements), but no assistance in finding a place for them to live.
Finally, very close to the 30-day deadline, they found a something. The employer of the working mom owned a small place, and the tenant had moved out. This place has three tiny bedrooms, a small kitchen and living room, one bathroom, and a small yard–space for their little dog. They have in an outdoor breezeway with room for a washer and dryer and a small freezer. For most of us, this place wouldn’t be much. It might even be called depressing. But they call it home.
They invited family and friends and church folks and coworkers over for a housewarming party. And we all came. They fed us all despite the fact that they had just paid first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit. We jammed into the house and the doorways and peered in the windows as the pastor gave a houseblessing prayer and the couple and each of the kids talked about what it meant to them to have a home.
They moved in September 2008.
Shortly after that–well, after Halloween–the kids started looking forward to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving in their own home. Just like we all do.
But then one day when were in the car going home one day, they saw a woman out on the median strip of the boulevard near their home; a woman with one of those ubiquitous signs: “Hungry, homeless. Please help.” Alongside this woman were her two small children.
These kids, who until recently had been homeless themselves, decided that they didn’t need Thanksgiving after all. They made plans to give their dinner to this woman and her children, to this other family. The moms convinced them that they could do something for this family, but not what they had in mind, because one of the grandmothers was purchasing Thanksgiving dinner for them.
Well, okay… But they wanted to do something NOW then. They packed into the car, found the woman, went out into the street and talked with her and her kids. They found out that they were living under some bushes alongside the freeway. They shared their story with her, and soon came back with jackets and blankets and sandwiches and milk for her and her kids. These two young kids couldn’t remember when they’d had milk.
A few weeks later when Thanksgiving came, the family did have their Thanksgiving dinner in their own home. The grandmother was there with them to enjoy it. But as soon as their meal was over, they put all of the leftovers into containers and went to a prearranged meeting place, giving everything to this family who had nothing. Dinner, along with brand-new socks.
* * * * *
There is no happy ending to this story for the woman and her two kids. I went by her place on the median strip a few times, giving her a few bucks when I most likely would not have if I hadn’t learned about her from these six kids, this family I had come to love so much. But soon I didn’t see her any more. I asked, but they hadn’t seen her either. There was a story in the local paper about a sweep to rid the area of the homeless living along the freeways.
And so there is no ending to my story, no clean ending to this post. And there is no end to the problem of homelessness. But in honor of these six kids who know what it is to be homeless who tried to make a difference in the lives of someone worse off than they were, I will be doing something to try to help on Thanksgiving. And I’ll do something today. Hopefully I won’t forget on all the rest of the days of the year.