This piece was written by one of our newest Board members, Ross Martinie Eiler. Ross is also a founding member of the Bloomington Catholic Worker Christian Radical community.
Homelessness and poverty are a problem in Bloomington. This is not new. What is relatively new, however, is the strategy of addressing poverty by pushing the poor out of sight. Some recent examples include taking out benches by the public library, installing anti-homeless planters at the courthouse, arresting those sleeping in parking garages. The message remains the same: people who are homeless are not welcome here.
This problem is not unique to Bloomington. A recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty entitled No Safe Place documents the increased criminalization of the homeless around the country. Reports about “homeless spikes” in London and “poor doors” in New York ring the same notes of marginalization. Even well-meaning and concerned citizens often buy into this pervasive mentality, suggesting that there should be services for the poor, but not downtown, not on Kirkwood.
These maneuvers often depend on a conception of “deserving poor.” The “deserving poor” need help, but the “undeserving poor” earn nothing but disdain. “If that person sleeping on a park bench isn’t at Martha’s House,” so the logic goes, “he must be a drunk and so deserves to be on a park bench.”
However, this temptation to sort people into categories of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor is often a gross oversimplification of complex human experience. It is a form of unfair discrimination, of wrongly judging someone’s character by their appearance.
The challenge before us is to look past a person’s appearance, through their intoxication, perhaps; and see in that person a reflection of the self. Can we see, in each person we encounter, a human like you and me, a precious creature of body and soul?
The great writer and religious activist Dorothy Day once wrote, “Christ did not talk about the deserving poor. He did not come to save those who deserved to be saved. He died for each one, even for the very worst. The gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
Even outside a faith context, it is good public policy to affirm that all people deserve to have their basic human needs met. Hostilities towards the poor and barriers to satisfying their basic needs are not only cruel, but counter-productive. Attempts to push the poor out of sight exacerbate the problems of poverty, pushing people deeper into the woods, farther from safe spaces, without providing any positive solution.
We can, in Bloomington, embrace approaches to homelessness that do not include brushing the homeless out of sight, or making services inaccessible to the “undeserving.” We can recognize and support agencies like the Shalom Center, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, the Interfaith Winter Shelter and Trinity Church’s Sunday meal for creating low-barrier spaces. We can establish the standard that all people deserve safe, welcoming public spaces and easy access to services for food, shelter and health care. This is the starting point for real progress in addressing homelessness and poverty in Bloomington.