Thursday, October 17, 2013

An Atheist engages with the Homeless

Winter Count is an attempt to quantify the number of homeless in Rhode Island who will need beds during the extreme cold of the coming winter.

Last night I arrived at the location I was provided for Winter Count about a half hour early, because I like to be at the events early enough to greet others from Humanists of Rhode Island who might attend. When I got there I received some surprising news: Our group was not on the list, and we were never contacted about the way the event was to work. The training was a week earlier, and the actual count was going on in Providence, not Pawtucket. I called those members of the group I had numbers for to let them know that we would not be able to help, and waited to meet those who arrived in person to break the bad news. As I waited Normand arrived and we chatted as we waited. At ten past six a man from the office in Pawtucket came out and told us that if we got down to Burnside Park in Providence right away, we could receive a quick training and join a group.

So Normand and I drove to Burnside Park, and joined a group by the fountain. The “training” was being assigned to a group of seven people, one of whom had done this kind of thing before. Saul is about my age. Along with Saul, Normand and myself there were four Brown University students in our group. We ranged in age from 18 to 87, representing both sexes (five men, two women) and were racially diverse. We took a bus to South Providence (a pretty rough area, by my effete East Side standards) and covered the area from the McDonald’s restaurant, through the cemetery that divides Broad St from Elmwood Ave and then up Broad St (and through most of the side streets on either side) up to and around St. Joseph’s Hospital.

After getting our bearings we eventually entered the graveyard and met our first homeless people. There were three people there preparing to bed down for the night. Gently explaining who we were and what we were doing, our instructions were to be casual, courteous and not force an engagement with people who would rather not talk.

One of the homeless men referred to us as “church people” and immediately associated us with helpful people who have given him food and blankets in the past. Since I was still learning and observing at this point, I simply let Saul do most of the talking. He was gentle, direct and sincere. I was very impressed by his manner and his evident compassion. We talked with the small group of homeless, made sure they didn’t have any pressing, emergency needs (aside, I suppose, from the fact that they had no shelter and were preparing to sleep overnight in an open graveyard) and entered into our tally sheet notations for two adult males and one adult woman.

It was more difficult than I imagined it would be, and more emotional than I anticipated to move on and search for more homeless. The three I initially met that night ran the range from talkative and appreciative of the interest our group showed to complete silence in our presence. The woman complained of multiple things, but her language was slurred by alcohol and she was very confused, difficult to understand and very sad. The three had the clothing they wore, blankets, and some food and alcohol, as nearly as I could tell. They warned us away from the darker parts of the graveyard where people could not be trusted to be as nice as they were.

We next went into some of the darker parts of the graveyard. Here I met people in a place so dark I would never recognize them in the light. There were four men and two women, all in various states of homelessness. One man said that the homeless were not well represented on the streets because many had taken to squatting in abandoned, foreclosed and boarded up buildings. Though in our travels we met many of these, we of course could not enter them but only view them for possible signs of habitation. We were only allowed to count those homeless we actually saw ourselves.

The man we talked to called these squatter houses “abandominiums” and talked about how even people with social security checks who could afford a monthly apartment rental were prevented because they couldn’t summon the first and last months rent or first month’s rent plus security deposit. Many fail the background checks police run because of their criminal records (which might be a consequence of their homelessness).

A young woman was with the group. It was impossible to tell her age. She claimed to be eighteen but could have been as young as fourteen. It was simply too dark to tell.

On the street and elsewhere we met with fourteen homeless that night. Many had long, rambling, incoherent stories to tell. One man talked about having his ID stolen by men in a white truck which means he’s in trouble with the Tennessee branch of the FBI. Another simply smiled and smoked and spoke in a raspy voice that vanished when he opened his mouth. I could not understand his words but merely nodded.

We met one man I had heard of before. I don’t want to violate his privacy, so I will only say that I almost recognized his voice and when he said his name I knew him from his job in Rhode Island media. He’s homeless now, and alcohol and perhaps mental illness have rendered his stories and anecdotes nearly incomprehensible.

Eventually we covered our area and made our way back to the bus stop. We turned in our results and I went home to my house and warm bed.  I have a lot to think about.

First, there is cultural power in religion. We were called “church people” by one of the first homeless men we met, and though he could not tell our faith or much else about us, the term “church people” was like a code word for “safe.” We were safe to talk to. We weren’t cops, we weren’t other homeless, and we weren’t people interested in causing harm. It occurred to me that seeing a group as diverse in age and race as we were, that one of the best assumptions as to why we came together to do something good for other people is that we are in some way religious.

Later in the night a man asked us if we believed in God and I was silent on the question, because it was important to this man that we believe in God for some reason. It was a way he knew to ascertain if we could be trusted. Many in my diverse group were religious. The students answered easily that they were believers, two of them were Catholics. The man asked where they went to church, which is the kind of personal information we were told not to give out about ourselves, but the student who answered mentioned a Catholic church in his home state of Louisiana, so I didn’t think this too much of a breach.

This assumption, that people do good because of their religion is not just a false cultural assumption. In the very real world the homeless people we met last night live in, religious people are pretty much the only people they can trust. The government might promise shelter, food or money, but political whims or complex procedures to determine qualifications for help can quickly and confusingly deprive someone of the promised care.

Religious people can be counted on to deliver blankets, food and other amenities without conditions and without judgment. I know how ironic this sounds. We think of religious people as offering help and support in payment for listening to their sermon, and I’m sure such people exist, but to the people I met on the street last night, this was not their perception. They saw belief in God as a way of determining how much to trust a stranger.

I was new and still learning last night. I don’t know what the reaction would be if I told a homeless person that I was an atheist. I worry that the ensuing conversation might sound like I was proselytizing my non-belief in some way. Avoiding the truth seems dishonest, but at the same time, my priority has to be the care of these people, not defending my personal beliefs.

I will be doing more work with the homeless over the next year, I believe. Right now the effect has been a little overwhelming, and I will need some time to process my experience. I have a lot more to say, I think, but I’m still working through the thoughts.


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  2. Please keep me posted on your work and essays. I'm interested in many ways. Cynthia: