This last year our church determined that we would open to shelter the local homeless each time the weather went below freezing, but the city wouldn’t permit other churches to open up. We live in a fairly temperate climate, but the winter was cold, and most homeless weren’t prepared for it. After opening more than 15 nights, the city shut us down. Here is my reaction to my conversation with the city. If you are interested in our church and what our focus is, please check us out at www.NowhereToLayHisHead.org
I had a mysterious conversation with the emergency services manager of Gresham and the fire marshal a couple weeks ago. I was talking to them about the need of people sleeping on the street and how much danger they are in, especially when it gets below freezing. I spoke of Fred, whose leg was cut off a couple months ago because he had slept outside in freezing conditions. I spoke of the sixteen year old girls who have been sleeping outside all winter. And about a father and his sixteen year old pregant daughter who found themselves desperate without shelter.
And the response I recieved from them is a lot of fire codes, and how we can’t open because we don’t have 200 square feet per person and how it is acceptable to have a standard of only opening churches when it gets below 22 degrees. And they told me, “This is not a social problem,” and they said, “This is not an emergency,” and they said, “You should just let other people deal with this.” This was a foreign language to me, so I spoke of fire code with them, because it seemed to be the only language we could both understand.
Only this morning did it dawn on me what they were saying. They were saying that the fact that some people sleep out side and freeze to death is something they can live with. When they say, “This is not an emergency” it means that they don’t consider it important that Fred lost his leg. It is unfortunate, I am sure they would agree, but it doesn’t keep them up at night. They wouldn’t want the sixteen year old girls, pregnant or otherwise, to sleep outside in the freezing cold, but it doesn’t actually concern them, either. Because they have accepted that their city, their country, is a place where such things happen.
About seven years ago, I was going out to a homeless camp site to see Bill, just in case there was something I could do to help him. He had night blindness and was beginning to be mentally unstable, so I was going to take him to health professionals and see what could be done. When I found Bill, he was in a ditch, with no pulse. The paramedics told me he had died of hypothermia in the night.
To have leaders in our city help all of us, to treat us all as citizens, we need leaders who have compassion. I understand, it is difficult to have empathy. It is stressful and painful. Empathy can make you lose sleep when you realize that it is freezing outside and there are people suffering out in it. Compassion can make you wake up anxiously because you don’t know if you’ve done enough to help those in need. But a deep care of others is the only thing that will stir us to make things better for everyone. And it may cost us, but it will make our city better, it will make our county livable, and it will make our nation human.
Please, as it freezes these next few nights, think of those who are sleeping in it, and consider what can be done for them. Not just tonight, but for years to come.
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