I’m staring at an old newspaper cover.
It was delivered to our house in December, and made its rounds from the front door, to the kitchen table, to the kitchen cupboard before my wife finally stated “throw it out, I’m sick of looking at it”.
I threw most of it out.
The front cover I laid aside, then carefully cut out the picture on the front page. A woman stands in the middle of the picture, her upper body and face obscured by the sign she is holding. On the sign are two simple words: “Not Welcome”.
The city where I live has a problem. It has a significant population of unhoused individuals, and (currently) inadequate resources to shelter them. This past fall, tents and makeshift tarps lined the city sidewalks in a central downtown location close to various shelters and services. The tent-city eventually took up an entire block. And then in late November, the city unexpectedly and suddenly moved this population and their belongings to less central, residential areas. Areas much closer to people’s homes.
I kept the picture on the front page because it disturbed me. Temperatures had dropped significantly that week, and snow had begun to cover the ground. On the edges of the picture I can see the sign holder’s, embroidered scarf and fur-lined mittens. In contrast to their seemingly put together appearance, the signboard appears hastily written, blotches of paint visible within the letters. Their face was obscured, their identity and disdain protected. They could have been anyone. For a while, they seemed to be everyone.
That story captured a moment of collective anger, fear and judgement. For days people called in to the local radio or wrote into the paper expressing their frustration over scores of unhoused individuals being unceremoniously moved near their homes and parks.
At that time, a prominent pastor in our city was highlighted by a national news program for an editorial he had written regarding the homeless population in our city. I was hopeful that this pastor was going to comment on our common humanity, our need for empathy, and our need to stop “othering” this unhoused population.
But this was not what was written.
Initially, I was encouraged. The editorial began with the pastor challenging each person to walk down the affected street in our city, to see the faces of those most affected. The people hunkering down under makeshift tarps, those who worked at the nearby shelter, the business owners attempting to make a living. He reflected on his own religious instruction to have compassion and care for the poor. He lamented the tragic history that many of these individuals have had that has led to their current living situation.
And then as expected, he likened the plight of our city’s unhoused to a story in the Gospel of John. In John’s account, Jesus comes upon an encampment of people near a pool. The pool is thought to be a place of healing for those who can reach the pool while water is stirring (supposedly by a divine being). Many sick, blind, paralyzed and emaciated lived nearby. It is here that Jesus comes across a man who has had an infirmity to his legs for 38 years, and asks him if he would like to be well.
That question, “Would you like to be well?” is an interesting one, and one the aforementioned pastor focuses on. He reckons that perhaps the man did not want to be healed. That he preferred begging, that perhaps he would have to take responsibility for his life if he was healed. And then he related the story to the unhoused. Maybe some of them don’t want to be housed. Maybe some of them don’t want to “be clean and sober and work and pay [their] own way”.
Ah. There it is. So that’s the pastor’s true message. That there are deserving and undeserving. Sick or poor, 2,000 years ago or today, some people deserve our help and compassion, others do not. This pastor ends his editorial with the opinion that if an unhoused individual does not wish to become a productive member of society, that we should make our city “a very unwelcome place for them”.
There it is again. “Not Welcome”.
I cannot tell you how deflated I felt after hearing these words. I was expecting the Gospel, good news for the unhoused. I was expecting a story of compassion to yield more compassion, not justified condemnation.
And yet, I understand the frustration that leads one to look for answers, especially from the Bible. Frustration is understandable because the problem of homelessness is not simple, and has not been easily addressed in any city I am aware of. This pastor is frustrated with “handouts”, nonprofit and municipal resources spent because they don’t “fix” the problem of homelessness in our city.
What if it’s not about fixing? What if it’s about compassion?
I work as a nurse, and I regularly witness firsthand how important and commonly overlooked compassion is. Where we can, practitioners endeavor to heal to the best of our ability. But there are many things we cannot heal. Certain diseases, chronic conditions, even the human condition of aging and own slow decay are inescapable, unfix-able.
In these cases, compassion and care becomes infinitely more important than outcome. In fact, compassion becomes the outcome. Reducing suffering matters, even and especially when all seems hopeless. Imagine if I refused to treat the next patient with a chronic disease, on the basis that they would never “get better”.
I make this connection with our city’s unhoused and their treatment because I think this pastor, this unknown sign holder, and many of us need to rethink what a homeless plan should look like. What our compassion and care looks like, regardless of desired outcomes. I believe this pastor wants to help, wants to heal. He looks at the homeless encampment and sees a disaster, a crisis. He’s not uncaring, he’s motivated. He’s a fixer. It’s a good impulse.
But what if we can’t fix the problem? Or what if it takes a really long time? What if, as the experts imply, this a result of lost social and institutional structures, multi-generational trauma, systemic racism, a society-wide dependence on numbing through substances? What if this isn’t a “everybody work harder!” problem? What if those with past trauma are unable to trust institutional structures? What if someone who was part of a residential school can’t bring themselves to spend one night in a shelter with the name “Mission” on it. Or in the basement of a church? What if someone with longstanding substance use can’t simply sober up by sheer willpower alone in order to jump through the hoops of “dry housing?” What if someone can’t focus on job training before they find a reliable place to sleep that night? What then?
What do we do when we can’t win, can’t fix?
Our compassion matters. It matters to the people around us, and it matters within us. The moment I saw the front page, and that “Not Welcome” sign, I thought of Jesus’ warning that it is possible to gain the world, and forfeit your soul. Forfeit what best and truest within you. I grieved for a soul so willing to display it’s fear and hatred, and filled with enough shame to hide its face. I think about the soul of someone who thinks that the way of Jesus includes making a city unwelcome. Who reads a story of compassion and healing and justifies that some are undeserving of help or healing. The soul of someone who sees the coming snow, and doesn’t think of those sleeping in tents as deserving of warmth. That soul is cold.
And that soul is my soul, too, of course. Who hasn’t turned away from a stranger asking for help, hiding behind judgments of deserving or undeserving? Who hasn’t hoped that the next shelter would be miles away from their house, their work, or their children’s school? It’s easy to focus on an outspoken community pastor, or an anonymous sign holder, but each time I choose judgement or dismissal over compassion, my soul is wounded too.
I wonder if our purest love is shown best in the darkest places. When a perfect outcome seems impossible, when we barely move the needle. When nothing is winnable or fixable, we have only our compassion, our desire to reduce the hurt. We touch the wound, and we are the ones who are healed.
There is a place for a call to action. A call for businesses, communities, and organizations to partner. A call for personal responsibility, for those housed and unhoused. A place for compassionate municipal strategies. Power structures can change. Systems can ensure less people fall through the cracks. Outdated ideologies can be replaced. But our compassion is nonnegotiable.
I know people who are sure they will see an end to homelessness. Their focus is unwavering, until they make it reality. But whether they are right or wrong, one thing I am sure of is this: they will work to that end with dedication and compassion until their dying day. With their every action, in a thousand different words, they will tell the soul in front of them: “You are welcome here”.
And they will see none of it as wasted.