Dispossessed Downtown

The homeless of Houston.

“But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind; And thou shalt be blessed, because they have not wherewith to make thee recompense: for recompense shall be made thee at the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:13-14

I've lived in downtown Houston for the past two years. It's one of the few parts of this city where it’s feasible to live a relatively car-free lifestyle and that affords easy access to serendipitous Lindy Walks, which is the main reason I like living here. Before the coronavirus, most of my walks involved getting high and marveling at everything I strode past. Post-coronatine, I began taking three long walks a day with my dog in tow to keep my sanity (somewhat). I interact with people in a way while walking that isn't possible in a car. You're in a little bubble while in a car, isolated from the outside world. The only interesting people that I come across while flaneuring are the homeless, who many do not bother to give the time of day.

I don't know when I began to interact with the homeless. It probably began after I started trying to live out the principles of the Sermon on the Mount in my everyday life.As followers of Christ we are obligated to care for the downtrodden. They are not lesser than us, and indeed are to be lifted on high in the Kingdom of Heaven. We must give to anyone who asks of us and not turn away, and never ask for anything in return. Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the Earth. As we treat the weakest of our brothers and sisters, so will Jesus treat us when we wish to enter into communion with him. The poor are worthy of our respect and our love. Indeed it is an obligation for every Christian to clothe and house brothers and sisters in need.

Many Christians do not take these teachings seriously. I certainly failed in the past, and still fail in the present, to live them out. I do not bring house the homeless and I sometimes fail to give. Like many, I was vaguely intimidated by street people. An aura of criminality and degeneracy to hung over them, culturally. I didn't look them in the eye, as if they were not men. It is normal for propogandists to excuse our disregard for the homeless. Signs blanket intersections saying that giving money to panhandlers doesn't actually help them, and that you should instead donate those dollars to their charity that "takes care" of them. Requests for help are given brusque rebuffs. It is normal for us to gaze upon scenes of widespread immiseration on the streets without lifting a finger to help.

I've come to recognize many of the street residents in this part of downtown: The bespectacled writer atop his platform of coolers in the shaded corner of a tower off Louisiana and Leeland. The bushy haired walker limping around town searching trash cans for valuables. The wheelchair bound cynic with a fifth of vodka in his pocket who cruises around the streets, drunk, while cracking jokes. The absent minded man sitting in the sun on this or another bench in Discovery Green. The man on the corner of Wesleyan and Highway 59 with little winter wonderland between the concrete stanchions holding up overpass. These are the neighbors that I know. Now, I see new faces and new situations every day as more people are pushed onto the street.

The marginal strips of grass underlying highways 59 and 45 are packed with tents, in scenes not unlike 21st century Hoovervilles. Sidewalks along Main Street in the center of the city are the sites of makeshift neighborhoods, with people laying claim to stretches of walkway by putting up cardboard cubicles. Drive thru bread line snake their towards the Toyota Center and YMCA as every more people can't afford to feed themselves or their families. Streets around town are filling up with more and more of the economically dispossessed. We can all sense that this situation is wrong, but are we to do about it? Homelessness is distressingly complex issue. As Jesus said, the poor will always be among us, but surely there are ways we can help?

While recognizing the horror of letting our fellow men live on the street when we could house them, there is something to be said for the life of the homeless. They are by far the liveliest people I see walking around the city. The tent tenements are the center of lively communities. I see more evidence of solidarity in these downtrodden places than in the apartment complexes of those of us who are "better off". Conversation, game playing, music jam sessions - isn't it strange how the poorest have a greater sense of place than us? This is something to ponder deeply, and reflects something deeply sick at the heart of our American way of life. Again, I'm not trying to idealize the driftless life. Most of it is terrible and I see that everyday. But they ways in which it can be beautiful reflects on how the rest of us live.

The homeless are open about their lives. Or at least the ones who introduce themselves to me are. You could be cynical and say that this is only because they are out to get some money from me, which is true to a degree. Yet even saying hello, dropping a head nod, or asking "how are you?" to people who rarely get any sort of recognition from society can lead to the most intimate connections. In March, at the beginning of the pandemic (or at least when America woke up to it), I was walking outside with my dogs while wearing a mask, a rarity at the time, and passed a pair of homeless men who made their abode outside of my building. They noticed my mask and one of them quipped "you know we need masks too". I stopped and offered to go and grab them some. They replied that they were fine without them, but would appreciate a beer, so I went upstairs and grabbed a couple for them. One remarked on how strange it was that "I stopped" and bothered to look out for them, and we had a conversation about the inhumanity of our society. How truly strange.

This post probably comes across like I'm condemning those who don't interact with homeless like I do. That is not what I am trying to do. After all, Jesus tells us not to judge unless we too would like to be judged in the same manner. I fail to live up to my ideals all the time. I have consciously not carried money with me in the past so that I have the excuse "no cash on me" to avoid giving to those who ask. I heard the cries of a homeless woman in pain and very nearly steeled myself to the noise, but turned around to call 911. Some people have had bad experiences with those on the streets and I do not mean to diminish those episodes. Many of them are addicted to drugs. Many of them are mentally ill. Many of them have "criminal" pasts. This all may be true, but if you get to know them as individuals you will find something beautiful in their soul, and it might be the most rewarding experience of your life as it has been for me.