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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. 

-Kelli