US Catholic Faith in Real Life

One person's trash is another person's property: Thoughts on "enabling homelessness"

Liz Lefebvre | Print this pagePrint |

I was intrigued recently by an exchange of opinion articles in the L.A. Times debating a new city ordinance that allows people experiencing homelessness to keep their possessions on sidewalks. The ordinance is especially affecting Skid Row, and speaks to larger debates about how cities are dealing with increasing homeless populations.

In the first letter, "Enabling homelessness on L.A.'s Skid Row," Carol Schatz expressed concern that the city’s injunction has negatively impacted public health, decreased safety, and discouraged business at local establishments. Schatz also argued that some people are less likely to seek help getting housing if they have free reign to store their belongings on the sidewalk.

Jeff Dietrich of the L.A. Catholic Worker, whose work includes providing people with shopping carts to store their belongings, wrote in response: “We are homeless enablers, and we are proud to provide the essentials that enable the homeless to stay alive.” To Dietrich, he and others like him are simply affirming the human dignity and basic rights of their brothers and sisters.

I worked as an “enabler of homelessness” through a year of service with Jesuit Volunteer Corps. My organization, a daytime drop-in center, provided people with blankets, backpacks (a highly sought after and rarely available commodity), and trash bags. For someone who lacks stability and privacy, a trash bag (to keep an extra set of clothes clean, or store last remnants of a life before homelessness) is much more than just a vessel for storing unwanted or broken items.

At times during my service year I did feel like I was enabling homelessness, in that my organization was focused simply on meeting people where they were at and providing emergency relief, rather than working on changing long-term problems. As a result, I appreciated one question that Schatz raised in her letter, though I disagreed with some of her other points: "Rather than simply establishing and refining rules under which homeless people can continue to live on city sidewalks in squalor," she wrote, "Shouldn't activists and the courts focus on how to help homeless people off the streets?"

Homelessness is a real problem in our society—we know people are suffering whether we can see them or not. We shouldn’t be focused on how to keep people out of sight; instead, we should be working on ways to reduce and eliminate the circumstances and situations that lead to life on the street. It’s not as immediate of a fix as snapping your fingers and making someone disappear, but by working for more jobs, better wages, easier access to health care, and maintaining our safety net, people will be out of sight because they are better off, not because they have been made to hide.

Dietrich has recently authored a book about his experiences at the Catholic Worker, called Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row (Loyola Marymount Institute Press). He begins one section of his book with the following quote from comedian and Catholic Stephen Colbert:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.

So: Do we actually want to love the poor and serve the needy?

Just this weekend I received a touching message from one person who came to receive services at my organization. Since I first met him, he is out of the shelter, working regular hours, and happy and healthy. He contacted me to thank me for the role I'd played in helping him become the person he is now. Though on the surface my role was little more than playing cards and talking about sports, books, and movies with him, what I was really able to do was help him keep a sense of feeling whole and human.

I for one am glad to keep enabling homelessness for a result like this.