Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Streets of San Antonio

Living on the streets might look like a piece of cake. No bills to pay. No one to report to.  No dirty dishes to clean up. You carry everything on your back. You’re free!

After just a day on the street experiencing a “homelessness immersion” with Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith, I’m convinced it’s about the hardest work I’ve ever done.

My day began early Friday morning with a walk to Milam Park where Lorenza’s journey started two and a half years ago. She gave everything away to live in solidarity with the poor who live “under the stars.” She laughed that she had to phone someone that evening to drive her to the park because she had forgotten that she had given away her car.

Thankfully, it was an absolutely gorgeous day. As she laid out her mat near a park bench, Lorenza gave me three tasks for the day. “We need money for bus tickets so I can get to the conference office. We need lunch. And we need a safe place to sleep.”

“Oh, and no cheating. You can’t use the ATM.” She put her head down and closed her eyes, which I took to be a sign of great confidence in my hustling abilities.

Lorenza’s friend, Richard, showed up and smiled and said, “Just walk around and ask folks for change for the bus.” Like it was no big deal.

So off I headed, winding through the downtown, lugging  a ratty old back-pack borrowed from a staff member. After wandering for an hour and a half, and asking countless people for change, I had empty pockets to show for my labors. And I couldn't help but notice that the goofy grin with which I had begun the day had melted away. 

I did stumble upon Goodwill (and a public bathroom!) and they said the Salvation Army might have bus passes. I tried to call but no one answered, so I began a long hike over there. I learned later that being sent somewhere else is a common tactic to deal with the homeless. No wonder some folks who wander in the doors of UUMC looking for assistance are not always in the best frame of mind!

On the way, my back-pack came apart and hit the street. I sat down under a tree, literally undone. No one had even reached in their pocket for change. Very few folks made eye contact with me. Some just walked on by without acknowledging my existence, giving me a wide birth.

As I fixed the backpack, I looked around and spotted a Plasma Center across the street. Light-bulbs went off. I hustled through the door, practically ran up to the receptionist and said, “How much money for a plasma donation?”

“Forty dollars,” came the reply. I did a little inward fist bump, signed in and called Lorenza.

“Jackpot,” I told her. “Get over to the Plasma Bank.”

When they called me up to the desk again, they asked for my ID. In particular, they needed my social security card.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “I never carry my social security card.”

“Sorry. That’s the rule. Everyone knows that.”

I sat outside the plasma bank, downcast. I had been “homeless” for about two hours now and was failing miserably.

I met up with my friends, and they suggested we head to Travis Park UMC. They might have some bus passes. On the way, I tried my luck one more time on bus money, and came up with a transfer. And someone actually reached in their pocket to see if they had change. I was making progress!

I walked back to the church with Richard, who proceeded to step off the curb right in the path of a car. I grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back. Lorenza said this happens to folks on the street all the time. You walk around so much, you just walk into the street without looking, and boom!

We made it through the door of Travis Park just in time for the lunch Bible study. I beamed at Lorenza: “Well, I didn’t get bus money, but I did get us lunch!”

“No,” she smiled. “I got us lunch.”

We joined about 30 street folks around long tables for what was, I’m sure a great Bible study, led by my puzzled colleague, Rev. Taylor Boone. The problem was, I was so concerned about getting bus passes and wondering where we would sleep that night, that I couldn’t concentrate on the study.

We learned that Travis Park no longer gives out bus passes. But I did receive one neatly folded dollar bill from a Travis Park staff member, Communications Director Betty Curry. (This will figure prominently later on in the story.)

And I found a safe place to stay for the night. Taylor suggested the Haven for Hope, San Antonio’s center for services for the homeless and those in transition off the street.

Soon we were on our way across town to the Haven. In order to get into the courtyard, I had to become a Prospect and go through intake. Two exceedingly kind staff took us through the intake process. I sat with two men, who immediately struck up a conversation.

The younger of the two wanted to know if I needed a jacket. “It’s gonna get cold next week,” he said. I told him I had a jacket in my pack, but the man next to him asked him what size it was. Turned out it was a perfect fit. The younger man stripped off his jacket and gave it to his new friend.

The older man was a Haven veteran and he proceeded to school us rookies in the rules. Where to put stuff. What to listen and watch out for. I marveled at unexpected hospitality.

With my Prospect card in hand, we lined up for the bag check and the metal detector. We had the kindest policeman ever go through our stuff. And we were in. Even though it was mid-afternoon, folks were already claiming prime spots on the courtyard for the night, men on one side and women on the other, trying to get some rest. Did I say that unbelievably loud freight trains pass right by the Haven about every 15 minutes?

We made a quick tour of the facilities and walked back to Travis Park. Lorenza had a wedding rehearsal that afternoon, so I waited outside on the steps, glad for the chance to rest my feet. My handy SWTX Conference pedometer had already recorded over 20,000 steps for the day, about ten miles.

I tried reading on the steps, but I was so tired and sun-burned that concentration was almost impossible. How do you do anything on the street when all of your energy and all of your time is spent waiting for food and walking to public bathrooms and finding a shower somewhere and a safe place to sleep for the night?

I looked up from my book at one point, and a guy about my age walked over to me.  “Do you have any spare change for a bus ticket?” he asked.

I laughed out loud. “I’ve been trying all day to get bus money and all I’ve got is one lousy dollar. How are you doing?”

“I’ve been looking for about an hour,” he said. “I’ve got nothin’.” Now he was standing right in front of me.

I reached in my pocket. “Here. Take this.” I handed him the dollar bill.

“No way, man. I can’t take that. How are you going to get home?”

“I’ve got a badge to sleep at the Haven tonight. I’ll be fine. Just take the dollar.” I put it back in his hand.

He stared at the bill for a long time, like I’d given him solid gold. He shook my hand and we exchanged names and we fist-bumped.  He walked away, and then turned back and held up his hands as if to ask, “Really? Your last dollar? For me?” I smiled and waved and walked away.

Sometimes grace sneaks up on you. You’re thinking that the day is all about you and your skills and what you can do. And the amazing generosity of perfect strangers breaks in. Breaks you wide open.  

I had failed miserably at homelessness that day. But I had discovered the many and diverse faces of Christ on the streets of San Antonio. Praise be!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mixing Faith and Politics

It’s conventional wisdom that faith and politics don’t mix. In polite company, it’s best not to talk about either and to put them together is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

In my United Methodist congregation and in a number of other faith communities, there is lively sense that our faith, our principles, the things we hold to be true, inevitably shape our political, economic and social beliefs. And so while mixing faith and politics may be a social faux pas, perhaps it’s something  best consigned to the dust bin of history.

My congregation, located next door to the University of Texas campus, has regularly taken stands on political issues. Many of us have joined the call for more humane immigration reform, for an end to solitary confinement and the death penalty, and for support of a living wage.

We’ve also joined a growing chorus of Austinites who whole-heartedly support affordable housing.

A couple of years ago, with the help of Austin Interfaith, we had several meetings with folks who are homeless. We listened to their concerns about life on the streets.

I vividly recall one meeting where we began listing some of the ways that their lives could be improved. They needed more day time shelter. Safer places to sleep and keep their stuff. More public restrooms and water fountains around the downtown.

As we went down the list, one glaring omission stood out to me. I had to ask, “What about housing? Most of you live under the stars. Why isn’t housing at the top of the list?”

And to a person, our friends who live on the street said, “Pastor John, we have no hope of ever getting any kind of housing in Austin, Texas.”

Our hearts sank.

After all, what could we do? Our church already feeds over 250 people every Saturday morning and clothes over 100. We provide programs on Thursday afternoon for street youth and we contribute to the Micah 6 Food Bank. We’re maxed out. Every congregation in the University area does incredible things to help alleviate poverty, but affordable housing? That was so far beyond our reach as to be unimaginable.

Following that meeting, we learned of a new bond that was being proposed for the 2012 election that would provide $78 million for affordable housing, including some funding for permanent supportive housing for our homeless friends. The last bonds passed in 2006 helped pay for the construction, renovation and repair of 3400 homes. The investment for the city brought in almost $150 million and created over 3000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs. How could this possible fail?

Unfortunately, the 2012 bond did fail by a very slim margin (1.5% of voters) and the funds for affordable housing have almost run dry. But there are still 38,000 families that can’t find a home they can afford in Austin and more than 2,000 homeless students in AISD schools. Low income families typically cut back on food and medical expenses, and move often, which makes it difficult for their children to do well in school. They’re also more likely to become homeless, which puts added stress on our thin infrastructure that provides shelter and services for the homeless. Doing nothing is not a solution without its own very human costs.

As people of faith, what is our calling? The Old Testament prophet Micah asks the same question: “What does God require?” And the answer begins, “To act justly.” If we follow our faith, we will be pushed out of the relative comfort of charity into the tricky work of doing justice. We will dare to move beyond simply giving a cup of cold water to consider systems of injustice. We will be drawn into that uncomfortable mix of faith and politics, where we practice our religious tradition’s deepest teachings by challenging policies and advocating for programs that seek the fullness of life for all human beings.