Dear Friend of the Jesus Center,
As we begin 2015 I want to give you an overview of how I understand homeless people are treated in our nation and local community. Just under two years ago, on January 30, 2013, along with service providers in Chico and other locations in Butte County, I helped conduct a Point-in-Time homeless count which was included in a report to Congress by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. On release that report documented that the state of California had the highest incidence of homelessness in the United States. From an overall count of 610,042 people homeless on January 28, 136,826 or 22 percent were found in California, which when compared to the next four states with the largest numbers, New York with 77,430, Florida with 47,862, Texas with 29,615 and Massachusetts with 19,029, shows the degree California leads the nation in the number of homelessness individuals. Signiﬁcantly, 91,272 or 67 per cent of those homeless in California were unsheltered sleeping in vehicles, recreational areas, public places and areas not intended for habitation. In Butte County’s total of 1555 homeless people in the 2013 Point-in-Time count, 26 percent had no home of their own – but rather shared a house with family or friends, 55 percent were unemployed and 31 percent lived without any shelter.
The Point-in-Time count has its limitation, especially in its inability to ﬁnd all unsheltered people at one time. The count is a snapshot of the relative size of the homeless population at a particular time. It defines homelessness as either individuals in families or alone who have been without shelter for at least one year or four times in the last three years or are staying in shelters and have some debilitating condition such as mental illness or substance abuse. This broad definition and method of counting is useful to understand the extent of homelessness on a daily basis while its drawbacks are obvious: counts ﬂuctuate based on seasons of the year, a substantial number of homeless people purposely seclude themselves or are in locations difﬁ cult to find, for example, sleeping in vehicles, inhabiting dilapidated buildings etc., tents in green or rural areas and so forth. Another method is to count homelessness people over the course of a year because individuals may fall into homelessness for short periods. This approach yields a much larger number. For example, on a single night 100 people may be homeless, while 300 people could be in the same condition over a month at different times which could lead to 1000s being homeless over the period of a year. Estimates of homeless people using this approach are between two and three million.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition in 2014 the cost for a two bedroomed apartment in Butte County was out of reach for many wage earners. $16.37 per hour was needed to rent a two bedroomed apartment whereas the mean renter wage was $11.30. An income of $34,040 was needed to rent such an apartment. Considering that the poverty threshold among Butte County’s population of 222,000 is $15,730 for a family of two and $11,670 for a household of one, the US Census estimation of those in poverty at 20% means that homeless people, striving for minimum wage jobs, have little opportunity to advance unless they band together in groups and pool resources.
Nationally, a growth in punitive policies against the unsheltered homeless has occurred. In 2009 The National Center on Homelessness and Poverty documented anti-homeless ordinances in 187 cities across the United States. No sit-down lying-down ordinances rose 43 percent from 70 in 2011 to 100 in 2014. 21 California cities now have laws prohibiting some of these activities whether or not the laws are being administered, with Los Angeles and San Francisco ranked among the 20 “meanest” cities according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. As you may know, in Chico an ordinance was introduced in December, 2013 prohibiting people from sitting and lying on public sidewalks, curbs and streets for long periods. It was reviewed after 6 months by the Chico City Council. During that period thirteen offenders were given a warning and one person received a citation due to a repeat offense.
In addition, in the past 18 months 21 cities have, through legislation or community pressure, restricted giving out food in public places. 10 communities in California pressure groups to require a permit to give out food. In Chico, the Orchard Church, which for ﬁve years had distributed food to homeless people in the city plaza, was suddenly required to purchase a permit every three months.
What this means is that in many places homeless people are frequently ignored, stereotyped or worse, shunned from the public gaze, which can be reinforced by homeless people themselves, through their self-marginalization, manifest in dress and behavior. Ill ﬁtting, worn-out clothing stigmatizes the wearer marking the person for avoidance by the public, a separation further reinforced by activities such as walking with shopping carts or bags to carry belongings and ferreting out food in dumpsters behind restaurants. After a Chico Police Department cleanup of homeless encampments, an ofﬁcer semi-jokingly asked me if I would like to have four dumpster loads of belongings of homeless people dumped at the Jesus Center, where homeless people could ﬁnd their belongings!
Without a home to live in a homeless person becomes something of a non-citizen. To illustrate my point here’s an analogy from one of Beatrix Potter’s book. Mr. McGregor, a farmer, had a relationship so to speak between himself and his labor and the soil under his feet by careful gardening. Peter Rabbit broke into that relationship by crossing the boundary marking out McGregor’s personal space – his garden. Peter ignored the boundary markers (fence, gates etc.) and invaded McGregor’s spatially deﬁned rights – his garden or land and by implication his personal identity in self-fulﬁllment and his “second” identity – his relation to others in community. The law that gave McGregor the power to punish Peter is the guardian of the boundary. Every square inch of space is valued in relation to labor which translates into property in some form. Parcels of valued land are owned by individuals, corporations, and by the state or local government. The right to property ownership is the deﬁnition of citizenship and roots us in our personal identity in today’s world. Consequently, the homeless have no place to be in the urban area. Punitive attempts to remove them from the public sphere are a public form of non-existence.
Ownership of property gives us security and so without property the homeless are essentially powerlessness. Their inability to move around without a “home” through owning or renting property forces unsheltered homeless people to gather in locations free of the public - under bridges, behind shrubs in recreational areas, on vacant industrial land, in secluded areas in city green belts, or in public places like libraries, plazas, parks, outdoor coffee shops, which give them a semblance of normality unless dress or behavior betray their state. Such people are outsiders without a place out of which to maintain their identity. A result is that the homeless person, constantly moving from place to place, is dispossessed of the meanings inherent in a job or in the gathering of familial artifacts, without an extended family, and left to ﬁnd friends on the journey and not from the security of settled space.
Interestingly, Jesus constantly aligned himself with such outsiders - those at the edges of society. For example, in Mark’s gospel Jesus stand alone as an “outsider” against his own family (3:20-21,31-34), and kinsmen (6:1-6), his own disciples (8:27-32, 9:12-13,10:32-34,35-45, chs. 14, 15, though cf. 4:10-12), and the Jewish authorities (1:1-8,2:1-12,chs. 3,7, 8: 31-32,10:32-34, chs. 11-150), as well as aligning himself with other isolated people, either by eating with them (2:15-17), or healing them (1:21-28,40-45,2:15-17,5:1-20,21-43, 7:31-37,8:22-26,9:14-32,9:33-37,10:46-52), or using them as examples (9:33-37, 10:13-16, 12:41-44), or receiving praise from them (14:3-9), or by being cruciﬁed with them (15:27). These outsiders are people possessed by evil spirits, lepers, children, women, Gentiles, the blind, deaf and mute.
A parallel of sorts abounds between Jesus and the stereotypical homeless person: narratives of Jesus’ birth speak of poverty and rejection by society at large. His life-style of constant movement without a ﬁxed abode, the accusations against him of mental illness and substance addiction, and his social interaction with the dispossessed, sufferers of injustice identify him as an offender of criminal intent, uneducated and rejected by his family. However, no formal correspondence exists between Jesus and contemporary homeless people in these parallels. Each one can be contested, for example, accusations of mental illness and substance abuse are slurs about the company he kept. Jesus was homeless, not through personal inadequacies or an unjust economic system, but through his choice to be an itinerant rabbi. Familial rejection stemmed from the communal contours of his ministry and not from ruined relationships caused by dissipation, and so forth. In comparison to the Old Testament where only humanity has a body (Gen 1 and 2), in the incarnation (John 1:14), God himself now has a body. He becomes a “homeless body” through his birth as a human being and rejection by his own people. In the words of Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press), 1985: 217-218) - homelessness “accompanies him from the opening moments of his birth at an Inn in which there is no room for him, and continues on into the ﬁnal moment of his manhood that culminates in the most extreme form of exile from the land – exile from the entire earth, execution. In the interim it is a condition reasserted in many smaller events, such as the exclusion from the temple (John 12:42; Luke 9:22); it is a condition actively advocated, as when the homeless Christ urges his disciples to leave their homes; eventually it is absorbed into the proverbial texture – Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. (Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58) … and is lifted into the prophetic framework – He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. (John 1:10,11) … For Jesus himself testiﬁ ed that a prophet has no honor in his own country. (John 4:44; see Luke 4:24) …” Born as a man, God becomes an outsider from birth to death.
The Jesus Center is concerned with all outsiders, whether homeless or suffering mental illness or drug abuse or unemployment because in these conditions Jesus is found (see Matt 25:31-47). Jesus’ death as an outsider - that is, one executed outside the camp (Heb 13:12) – provides us with the forgiveness of sins and the knowledge that all of us are outsiders who have identiﬁed with Jesus in his condition as cruciﬁed (see Heb 13:13, Gal 5:24 and Rom 6:1-6). Along with every Christian and every Christian church, we must join wherever Jesus is found in the world. In the words of William Cavanaugh (Theopolitical Imagination (Edinburgh: T&T Cark), 2002 :120): “Turn the corner, and the cosmic Christ appears in the homeless person asking for a cup of coffee. Space is constantly ‘interrupted’ by Christ himself, who appears in the person of the weakest, those who are hungry or thirsty, strangers or naked, sick or imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-47).” Our baptism in obedience to Jesus is an identiﬁcation with the suffering of the “homeless Christ”(Rom 6:1-7; Gal 3:27-28) and in our obedience in eating at the Lord’s Supper our communal identity with others is strengthened through the act of eating together with all the “wrong people” much like Jesus did in his own table-fellowship of including outsiders (Mk 2:15-17).
Meals offered at the Jesus Center continue that tradition of Jesus. Please support our work with homeless people and help fulﬁll our mission to be the “Jesus Center” - a place where through the offering of food and shelter an opportunity is given for all to connect with Jesus.
Bill Such Executive Director