ROUNDTABLE: “We don’t want to give food to the hungry.”

Disturbing, but that was the understanding we came away with after last Thursday’s roundtable discussion led by Joe Jackson.  Joe is a professor at the UF Law School and regularly offers his services to homeless folks as well as to those who try to help them. 

Joe gave an overview of his understanding of poverty and homelessness and how it has changed over time as he has gotten to know people dealing with these issues. His growing understanding of homelessness and his friendship with homeless people led him to become involved first with the committee tasked with finding a location for a “safe space” shelter (none was ever found that met with community approval) and later with the HOME Van (Homeless Outreach Mobile Effort). Most recently he helped bring a suit against the city for discrimination when it tried to close down the “Fire of God” church based on its membership – primarily poor folks.  He is currently involved with a series of city commission meetings where the commission is being asked to restrict churches from serving the “needy.”

Megan, a UF student, brought up the question of how we define the needy.  Are poor students on financial aid needy? Or is it the way people dress?  Where they live?  And this seems to point to the concern behind the concerns.  What is the real problem with serving a meal to a hungry person – or to many hungry people if there are a lot out there?  Or with offering shelter to someone who has no place to sleep or come out of the rain or cold?

Downtown business people and homeowners associations carry a lot of clout with the commission. But however they dress it up, the main concern is neither with a church’s ability to adequately care for needy people nor with public safety of downtown shoppers and nightclub frequenters or families living near neighborhood churches.  Churches and religious groups have done a good job of stepping up and filling in when the city started restricting services at St. Francis House – our city’s homeless shelter.  And there are laws on the books to protect people and property from individuals who are disruptive, dishonest, or dangerous.  The fact that downtown bars that encourage irresponsible drinking and the dangers  (and annoyances) that accompany it – drunk driving, brawls, public urination, littering, and other irresponsible and harmful behaviors — operate with little interference from the city, lays the lie to the public safety concern of many of the people who are complaining the loudest about churches. 

The bottom line seems to be… the bottom line.  Business owners are concerned about the down and out detracting from downtown’s ambience, and homeowners are worried about property values.  It’s money.

And it’s us.  If you repeat something often enough, people begin to believe it.  “Most homeless people are ‘transient vagrants’ who choose to live that way;” “Downtown is dangerous because of all the ‘homeless people;’” “If you feed them, you just encourage them to stay around here rather than moving on.”  All these statements smack of bigotry and recall times past when it was common for white people to make assumptions about black people and their presence affecting property values and “our” lifestyle.  

If we made the effort to get to know people, we would know – like Joe – that homeless and hungry folks are pretty much like “us.”  They’re a mixed bag of people trying their best to cope with the hardships in their lives. People living on the streets have suffered almost insurmountable hardships: debilitating mental or physical illness, abuse, addiction, poverty, unemployment and other human failings and vulnerabilities.  What should the attitude of those of us who are getting by be toward our neighbors who are struggling?  Shun them? Send them packing? Keep chasing them out of the “safe spaces” they’ve found on their own? Make it illegal for folks who want to help to be able to do so?  Some community.

It’s as wrong to treat the poor and “needy” as second class citizens as it is to treat someone with a different skin tone that way.  We can do better – as individuals and as a city.

The next city commission meeting dealing with this issue was postponed.  Stay posted for the new time.  Joe said it would make a difference to the city commission if many of us attended. For our part, we can show up being as passionate about the well-being of our brothers and sisters as we are about our bank accounts. 


Posted on 03/09/2008, in ROUNDTABLE and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I agree with Joe that it is a Gospel mandate to feed the hungry, but I can also see the perspective of the neighborhoods. It isn’t an “us against them” situation; please pray
    for a peaceful, fair resolution.

  2. Thanks for writing, Lynn. I don’t think about it as being us vs. them; I really believe it’s a matter of “us.” We all want to think of ourselves as being good people but have a hard time with the follow-through. We tend not to put our money where our mouths are. And we are, all of us, bigots at times. There are lots of churches located in or near neighborhoods where members have parties and large meals – with few complaints. The issue is brought to the city commision when the people being fed are homeless or poor. That’s also why, even though we have people sleeping on the streets and under bushes, we could never agree on a location for a “safe space.” As a community we have a hard time living up to our ideals.

  3. I don’t think of it as “us against them” either, but some of the homeless advocates are making comments like, “The neighborhoods are against churches.” Absolutely not true.
    Many of us have struggled to help the homeless people in Gainesville for years, and we will continue to do so. But neighborhoods also have rights, and we should respect their
    experiences and opinions.

  4. I agree with you that when people feel there is something at stake, arguments tend to get polarized and generalized statements are made. And I agree that folks living neighborhoods can be and often are helpful to homeless and poor people.

    But class distinction is a dirty little secret in a country we were taught was founded on the principle that “all men [sic] are created equal.” If the “experience” of a neighborhood is that they are suffering from vandalism, theft, public drunkenness, harassment, violence or other illegal behaviors, then those are indeed serious problems. But there are already laws on the books to protect them, and those laws should be enforced.

    If their experience is that folks don’t like poor people walking near their neighborhood, then – at the risk of sounding divisive (by pointing out the divide) – somebody needs to say that’s just wrong. I hope a lot of people will say it if it comes up at the next city commission meeting addressing this. We hope to be there, and will publicize the meeting time and date when it is available.

  5. tom wallace

    if all the people and groups who are so against helping the homeless and needy in our cmmunity would just take the time to help out at a shelter or kitchen they might finaly understand that the people they are so much against are no different from them. when you only get one side of the story and are ignorrent of all the issues it is very easy to believe that the homeless and hungry are lazy freeloaders and dopers. only when you get involved ,and actually spend time and get to know someone who is struuggeling to eat and take care of themselves and their families will they understand that they are different than you. before you can judge anyone you need to walk that mile in their shoes, or at least take time to know them and understand the sittuation. its easy to be against something you don’t fully understand.

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