Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Culture of Homelessness

I went to the library the other night to return a book. While I was there I saw several acquaintances from the local weekly overnight shelter across the street. They didn't recognize me--didn't acknowledge my wave--and I was in a hurry (and a little embarrassed), so I didn't interrupt them to introduce myself. As I made my way back to my car I noticed some local kids skateboarding their way to the park that some of these homeless folks were using as their base of operations for the moment, and just for a moment I thought, Here comes a clash.

Public parks are often the base of operations for homeless people and teenagers; they're centrally located, easy to access, comfortable--even featuring benches and tables--and generally free to the public. But public parks serve different purposes for different clientele. Lilacia Park is next to the library, where homeless folks can get out of the rain, access information about jobs and services, check their e-mail and read, even use the bathroom. Across the street from the park is the train station, which dramatically increases the reach of the homeless community, taking them into Chicago or out to the outlying suburbs, and between the rotating sites for overnight shelter. A short walk from the park is a social services office with job referrals and other resources. Public parks like Lilacia are a social utility for homeless people, a nerve center for their daily activities.

Public parks like Lilacia offer kids a place to hang out, recreate, skateboard, meet up with friends or get away from their parents. Parks have a similar social utility to kids, but nowhere near the strategic import that homeless folks assign to them.

Here's something to chew on. Homelessness requires a completely different fluency from what a friend of mine calls "homefulness." Different ways of perceiving and organizing visual cues, different ways of calculating value, different locuses of activity, different ways of getting from locus A to locus B--these and other cultural markers distinguish homeless culture from the homeful cultures that occupy pretty much the same space. And when two such dissonant cultures attempt to occupy the same space, clash is almost unavoidable. And when clash is unavoidable, power wins.

I doubt anything came from the convergence of kids and homeless adults on that same park. I have no way of knowing, to be honest, because I was heading back home to my own locus. But I gave that moment a lot of thought anyway, and it's helping me to think differently about how I approach ministry to homeless folks. It's essentially crosscultural: I have no idea what it's like to be homeless; it requires a fluency that I haven't achieved. I wouldn't know how to get from one shelter to the next. I wouldn't know how to get a bus pass or voucher, how to get a phone number to give potential employers, how to do anything, really. Homelessness as a circumstance comes to people for any number of reasons, from folly to bad luck to personal calamity. Homelessness as a way of life is learned behavior--a coping mechanism in the face of a circumstance. I'm reminded of the couple I met during their first breakfast in a homeless shelter: I can only hope that some kind, seasoned homeless person showed them the ropes and helped them to grasp the parameters of their new culture.

As for me, in my encounters with homeless people I need to be less confident that I can solve their problems (which is to say that they could solve their problems with a little creativity and initiative), and I need to be more alert to the realities that press in on them as they make their way through each day. I need to seek to understand, which is a way of loving.

2 comments:

Lance said...

One of the problems in dealing with the homeless is approaching homelessness as a "problem" when, for many, it was a solution. As Americans, we are often looking for a way to fix other cultures when there was nothing broken in the first place.
As concerned people we can never seem to get "over the hump" and just feed. As wrong as it is to us personally, sometimes a guy, sitting on a park bench, rocking back and forth, just needs a hit of JD straight from the bottle to quell the shakes - not a sermon on the ills of alcohol.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I am currently writing a paper on youth homelessness, and researching this topic has led me to many insightful and useful ideas and information to better myself in helping my patients. I like how you described the homeless culture and how you were humbled to realize that your position as a person with a home in no way prepares you or entitles you to cast judgment or offer advise to those without a home. I agree that in trying to help homeless people we must have a good understanding of what the homeless person is living in, personally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I also like the post from Lance in that we must also try to realize that being on the street may be a better place for some of the homeless people on the street. We cannot assume that every person on the street wants to be saved from the streets. Some are fleeing abuse and horrible living conditions. For some being on the street is a move up in life. This possibility must also be considered and for those in this situation one must be encouraging and listen carefully for ways to help.