Last week a lot of hype was going around the internet that a 90-year old man had been arrested in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for feeding homeless individuals on the streets. First off, he had NOT been arrested. However, this feeding program that he was organizing used public spaces such as parks or beaches in violation of an city ordinance and he had been cited for his actions. Much of the news around this has been sensationalized with misleading headlines (such as the huffpost article linked above). Unfortunately only on rare occasions has there been much substance to the conversation.
Cities around the country face a significant challenge in caring for and working with our homeless communities. In Fort Worth we have anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 individuals who are homeless at any given time. Of this number 400-500 are listed as being "chronically" homeless (homeless for over a year or with 4 or more episodes of homelessness in the past 3 years). Many of these homeless are children, victims of domestic abuse, or suffer from a mental illness. Again, in contrast to the hype, a small percentage of them have a debilitating substance abuse problem. 10% of our homeless also tend to be veterans of the U.S. armed services.
When you actually engage the homeless community these statistics come very clear. As the pastor of a church in the heart of the city I have had the opportunity to get to know our homeless neighbors. Several times a week, especially in colder months, I have the opportunity to speak with and engage homeless neighbors who seek shelter in our courtyard or come asking for food assistance.
Through the generosity of Trinity members and the fees I earn doing non-member weddings my pastoral discretionary account allows me to buy these individuals a meal at McDonald's or help them with a tank of gas if they are passing through. I encourage them to seek assistance with the programs we support. However, the vast majority of these individuals are the small percentage (less than 10%) of our homeless community who are homeless largely due to substance abuse problems.
Rather than seek shelter, treatment, or solutions to get off the streets, their addiction has trapped them. Rarely does a day go by I don't pick up several empty cans of high alcohol beer from the church property. We have had to warn our yard volunteers when picking up leaves to wear gloves and watch for sharp objects. These are the realities of being a church in the city and we embrace those realities because this is where our church is planted.
Then there is the experience I have every second Tuesday of the month when Trinity hosts game night at the main shelter and the women & children's shelter at the Presbyterian Night Shelter. The PNS is the largest provider of services to homeless people in our community. That evening members of Trinity serve hot chocolate (lemonade in summer) and provide cookies, conversation, game partners, and prayer partners. Each evening we serve 200 or so individuals in the main shelter and 20-30 children and their mothers. These are a mixture of folks who are homeless for a variety of reasons. Many temporarily homeless due to job loss, illness, or domestic violence. Some came to Texas for the winter or to seek work in our "booming" economy. PNS and other programs like them provides them a place to land, to prepare paperwork to receive benefits they might be due (especially for Veterans), and hopefully being a journey home.
All of these individuals are human beings deserving of being treated with dignity and respect. And at Trinity and in the shelter programs in our city I believe they receive that respect. In addition to shelter programs our city has an organized program to assist those who are willing to make the journey from homelessness to home. Shelter is available to individuals willing to conform to simple rules and only a couple hundred a night choose to do otherwise. Although hunger and food insecurity is a problem, often for our school children (80% of students at my daughter's school qualify for free breakfast and lunch) more than adults, there is no wide-spread starvation on the streets of Fort Worth.
Despite this positive work we do have significant problems in Fort Worth. We have ghettoized the homeless programs largely into the East Lancaster area away from the tourist areas of downtown. Directions Home has been underfunded by local and state government. More could be done for the spiritual and emotional well being of homeless men, women, and children. We spend hundreds of millions on new arenas and development projects. Yet the windfalls from those projects directly benefit only a small percentage of the Fort Worth population. Directions Home struggles to make its commitments due to budget cuts.
We have challenges in our city as does every city. However, the hype and sensationalized coverage of the events in Fort Lauderdale do little to truly help our homeless sisters and brothers. During the holidays many will have the desire to go to a "soup kitchen" and serve or donate one of their spare coats to a clothes closet. That is a noble gesture and one to be encouraged. However, if you truly desire to serve those in our community who are homeless please get involved with organizations that have the ability to do more than provide a meal and a photo-op. Make service more than just a holiday thing but a regular part of your life, the life of your church, and your family's life.
I have no doubt Mr. Abbot is sincerely trying to bring attention to and move conversation forward about the root causes of homelessness in our communities. As a 90 year old man he sets a challenging example to any who might say they are to old or too young to serve (follow Paul's admonition to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4).
However, to help people, to accompany our sisters and brothers in need, requires much more than setting up a table with some food in a park. It takes engagement, relationships, case-management, knowledge, and connections to services and spiritual care. There is work to be done year round. So I applaud Mr. Abbot's desire and take a challenge from him. If a 90 year old can do it, so can you. Let go of the hype and get to work with help.