Now I Understand

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

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.

Comments (10)

  1. Ben Wideman

    Brilliant post. Thanks for sharing this troubling (and often overlooked) element of our society.

  2. CharlesB

    SteveK, thank you for your excellent post.

    I would just add that hypothermia is not just a danger when the temperature is below freezing. According to a report released by National Coalition for the Homeless, many of the worst cases of hypothermia “arise when the days are warm (between 40o F and 50o F) and the nighttime temperature drops to the mid-30s.”

    This is not a problem that goes away when the snow melts.

  3. RantWoman

    Check out the site

    One of the big successes SHARE /WHEEL have is organizing self-managed groups of people who make arrangements to stay on the floors of different churches in our community.

    They also have an encampment that travels every few months to different churches. Use Nickelsville in the search engine of your choice.

  4. AlanS

    I think you touched on a key difficulty of any human justice issue. Namely, that many people don’t see it as a problem. For most people I know, we’re in agreement that there’s a problem, the only question is then what to do about it. But when you don’t think it’s a problem in the first place…..well, then that’s a whole other ball game.

    A woman that I knew that was working for the Prison Arts ministry in Kansas City had a similar realization in a conversation we once had. She was expressing frustration that prison administrators were writing off the program as irrelevant, and that they were blind to how effective the program was at rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. I said, yes, but the difference is that you think the point of prison is to rehabilitate people. Most everyone else in the world thinks that point of prison is to punish someone. To make them “pay their debt to society”. Rehabilitation (or any arguments and stats for it) is then irrelevant, because that’s not the point in the first place.

    The hardest part, by far, is convincing people that there’s even a problem in the first place. Hopefully people’s eyes will be opened on this issue an many others. Until then, it’s important to speak a language and use rationales that appeal to their own self interests (i.e. fire codes, cost, political points, etc…) rather than genuine care for human suffering. It might be the only way to get some things done.

  5. TimN


    I think you’ve succinctly stated the problem:

    I think you touched on a key difficulty of any human justice issue. Namely, that many people don’t see it as a problem.

    For me, this is what the biblical narrative is about, constantly pulling us back to seeing the world through the lens of Jesus’ shalom vision that comes from his reading (and living out) of the Old testament prophetic tradition. It relentlessly focuses us on justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner.

    When Paul tells us “Do not conform to the patterns of this world” in Romans 12:2, he’s talking about putting fire codes before homeless people.

    P.S. For going deeper on the concept of first and second languages in Christian theology, I recommend Ted Koontz’s article, “Thinking Theologically about War against Iraq”

  6. joe

    Yeah, I think this dehumanising language is actually quite common – it is a fire risk for these people to sleep on a floor, but not enough of a risk for them to sleep on the street.

    In England we used to be explicit. There were the ‘worthy’ poor, those who caught an illness or worked really hard or who were religious, who it was socially acceptable to be seen to help. And there were the ‘unworthy’ poor, those whose sin brought poverty. Who were beyond the pail. Who deserved what they got. Who only understood anything if it was uttered with harshness. Who needed to be taught a lesson.

    We don’t tend to use those terms, but the attitudes sometimes have residual power. Those within the system find it hard to associate themselves with the lives of those in desperate conditions, so cannot imagine themselves being in the same situation. So somehow it becomes acceptable to be harsh, unyielding and concerned about programs and money over people.

  7. Tim Baer

    I loved Shane Claiborne’s story about his time trying to meet the fire code in an abandoned church. That part of Revolution was my favorite.

    Someone mentioned rehabilitation. I’ve known folks who have worked with the homeless and discuss how hard it is to “rehabilitate” people who are crazy or on drugs and are perpetually homeless. But maybe we are looking too deep into the problem. Maybe what Steve is doing is all we can do. We can meet the need of a warm place to stay.

    It still seems weird to me that our society allows the homeless to wander the streets. They can be just flat-out insane. But what can you do? Forcibly lock ’em up and throw drugs down their throat? There’s no easy answer. Thanks for trying.

    TimN, Once again I appreciate your outlook and your care and compassion for those in need. We need more Christians who can sense the hurt in the world and attempt to heal it. However, once again your use of Scripture is reckless. Paul ain’t talking about fire codes in Romans 12. There are other, better scriptures to justify your beliefs on the matter, if that is what you wish to do.

  8. TimN

    Tim B,

    I agree, there may be better scriptures then Romans 12:2 to make my point, but what do you see Paul referring to when he says “patterns of this world” in the passage?

  9. AlanS

    @Tim Baer,

    I think I was the one who used the word “rehabilitate”. Just to be clear, I was talking about the prison system, and it was just an example in service of a different point.

    But while we’re on the topic, you said

    But what can you do? Forcibly lock ‘em up and throw drugs down their throat?

    actually, I would say yes. And before you freak out, what I really mean is that we need to re-fund state mental hospitals and provide the adequate treatment that the people deserve. My uncle worked for the Winfield State Mental Hospital here in Kansas when it was shut down back in the 80’s. Virtually all of their patients wound up on the streets. The number of homeless who are really only homeless because they should be in adequate mental facilities is sickeningly high. It’s a moral failing of our society. I might even go far as to say it’s (deep breath) a cultural sin.

    Oh, and TimN is fully justified in his use of scripture. The verse TimN quoted was in the context of talking about living as the body of Christ and treating people in a radically new way. In fact all of chapter 12 is about this. Need it to be more specific to this situation? Fine. Verse 13 “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” I think it is well with in the realm of legitimate interpretation and application to say that this scripture would absolutely tell us that we should be more concerned with taking care of our fellow humans than following arbitrary fire codes. If this is your definition of a “reckless” use of scripture, I’d hate to see what qualifies as legitimate. ;)

  10. Pingback: Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites, Part 1 » Young Anabaptist Radicals

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