The Common Good

Seeing the Full Humanity of Our Homeless Neighbors

Last week, January 27, just a few blocks north of the Sojourners' office on 14th Street in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of our nation's capital, a homeless man was attacked and lay dying on the street for 20 minutes, on this busy street, while passersby ignored him. Washington TV Station WJLA has posted security camera footage of this tragedy. The video even shows one person stepping over and around the dying man to load groceries into their car.

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In this time of economic crisis, we are seeing the number of homeless people swell in cities across America. Yet we are seeing local governments across the country enact laws to prohibit sharing food with the homeless and poor, or to force them to designated areas. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has published a report on 22 such laws and their impact.

One of the problems with these laws is they tend to reinforce the stereotype that a homeless person is somehow less than a full citizen with human rights. Violence against the homeless is rising alarmingly. In Orlando five teenagers, 13-16 years old, beat a homeless man to death 'for sport.' In Ft. Lauderdale teenagers were videotaped beating another homeless man to death with a baseball bat.

We just celebrated an inauguration two weeks ago, and much attention was focused on the election of an African-American president as evidence of how far we have come in the battle for civil and human rights in America, and rightfully so. But while we revel in this milestone, we need to remember the message of Civil Rights pioneer Rev. James Lawson, speaking at Trinity College at the Sojourners Pentecost 2008 conference. He called on us to name the 'isms' that are institutions of oppression that cause a spiritual poisoning -- that cause poisoned people not to recognize the 'imago dei' (image of God) in others who are different than them, or you could say to recognize others who are different as somehow less human, less intelligent, less worthy of respect.

Those 'isms' are racism, classism, and sexism. We need to awaken and call on the church, as well as society, to recognize the humanity of those experiencing homelessness and poverty. We need to stand against laws and policies and programs that spread the spiritual poisoning Dr. Lawson spoke of.

In Memphis in 1968, while taking part in leading the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike, Dr. Lawson was captured in a famous photograph carrying a sign with the words "I AM A MAN." In 2009 in Orlando, and other cities in America, activists working with the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and homeless citizens are carrying signs saying "I AM A HUMAN." NCH has established a Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau in many cities to help educate school, civic, and church groups to recognize the 'imago dei' in our most vulnerable neighbors. We pray that these efforts will help to seek an end to this evil of indifference.

Rev. Alan Clapsaddle is a social justice advocate and blogger in Orlando, working with the National Homeless Coalition and LA2W.org. Alan serves at First UCC Church of Orlando.

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