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We’re Starting A Community Garden

Red beetroot leave

It’s springtime here in the Southland, the birds are singing and the flowers are blooming. And many of us are putting in our garden. Some of us have been working on it for weeks.

Maybe you know how good it feels to buy a $1.50 packet of seeds, stir up the soil and tuck them in, water them regularly and watch them sprout. They then become beans or tomatoes that feed our bellies, or maybe they become beautiful flowers that feed our soul. What was once a muddy dead place now becomes useful, or beautiful, or both.

But that presupposes you have a spot of earth in which to do that, or at least a flowerpot and a sunny windowsill. For a lot of the people who come through our hospitality house, memories of digging on the earth to make it productive and beautiful are just that – memories.

As a child, I was taught that to have a thing and not share it with others is sinful. And it occurred to us one day that in our new location, Love Wins has this big yard just sitting there. And we have folks with tons of experience in landscaping, construction, farming and so on, also just sitting there.

And we have all of you, who could help us make something beautiful happen. Put that all in a pot and stir it up…

What we came up with was, we need a community garden. In all senses of the phrase – a garden for our Love Wins community, and a garden where we can build community, and also a garden that makes the larger community – our neighborhood, our street, our city – more beautiful.

And then there’s the food. The ability to control the food you have access to is a form of power – one often denied to the people in our community. And while we’re not fooled into thinking that our ability to plant carrots or kale will suddenly improve the diets of the people we know, we do believe that the key to improving anyone’s life is to increase their choices.

So, we’re starting a garden. And we need your help.

Because this isn’t just some tomatoes and peppers in the flowerbed. It’ll be a place of beauty, with flowers and birds and butterflies. Because our folks have too much that is ugly in their lives – and need a place of beauty.

So there will be flowers. And benches. And a rose arbor. And mulched paths and raised beds and a hedge of blueberry bushes. And fruit trees. Because the people we are doing this with, and for, deserve a place to work, to relax, and to enjoy all that is beautiful.

But beautiful costs some money. And takes some time. And our goal of building community requires that you be there, too. So we need your help.

I hope you will click this link, and decide to help us do this. I hope your small group or Sunday School class will sign up to help us do this.  I hope you will decide that a rose arbor for marginalized people to sit under, where they can enjoy beauty and forget, even for a few minutes, the struggles of their existence, is not frivolous, but worthwhile. I hope you will decide to plant flowers with us, and sit on the bench with us and watch the birds chase each other.

But mostly, I hope that you will hope with us. Because things like hope and beauty might not be everything, but they are high on the list.

Visit our community garden page to learn how you can hope alongside our community.

We Aren’t Fighting Homelessness

Hugh is in Syracuse, New York this weekend facilitating a leadership retreat wih the Isaiah’s Table community. Here’s a post from the archives reminding us that homelesness isn’t just about housing. – Sara

Lonely man

Yesterday around three, Ron comes in my office. He looks depleted.

“I lost my bed at the shelter.”

Ron has been in the shelter for a while now, participating in a program designed to help him bridge the gap between homeless and housed. He is due to get a housing voucher in the next two weeks, which will mean leaving homelessness and re-entering the world of the housed. Losing his bed is bad. Very bad.

I ask, “What happened?”

As part of the terms of the program he is in, Ron is supposed to attend classes. He missed one yesterday because he was out in town at a medical appointment and the bus ran late. Since he was already on probation, having had this happen once before, they banned him from the shelter for 30 days for “noncompliance.”

So, Ron lost his bed. But it is worse than that – he is in real danger of losing his housing voucher after months of waiting. But it is worse than that, for Ron is disabled, and his health conditions won’t be improved by his being outside.

But the thing that really frustrated me is that we have several nights of below freezing weather in the forecast for the next week. See, on nights when it is below freezing, they open the shelter to everyone, to keep people from dying on the streets.

Well, they open it to everyone that isn’t banned. So, Ron is sitting in my office, knowing that because of a schedule problem, he is facing a return to chronic homelessness, health problems, and nights outside in freezing weather.

There isn’t much you can say in that situation. Years of doing this work have shown me the futility of trying to reason with the shelters – they are firmly stuck in the “homelessness is a character problem” mentality.

And as frustrated as I am at the shelters in general, this post isn’t about the shelters.

Homelessness is almost impossible to understand until you realize it is a series of losses. Loss of a house, yes, but that is usually preceeded by loss of a job, loss of friends, often loss of children and spouse, loss of peers, loss of identity, loss of relationships, loss of dignity.

When Ron came into my office yesterday, he was not looking for my help – in fact, he never asked a thing of me, other than my OK to get his mail sent to Love Wins, something many people do anyway without asking.

Yesterday, he lost his warm bed for the next month. He probably lost his housing voucher. He lost his community at the shelter. So, he was checking in to make sure he hadn’t lost us, too.

The hardest thing for us to explain is that we are not fighting homelessness – we are fighting the loneliness that accompanies homelessness. We are less anti-homelessness and much more pro-community. That may be hard for our supporters to grasp at times, but yesterday, Ron understood it, and in fact, was counting on it.

The urge to “help” when it isn’t asked for is overwhelming sometimes. The hardest part of this job is allowing people to make their own decisions – which, when you think about it, says a whole lot more about me than it does about them.

Related: Acting Against Loneliness, It’s Not My Choice

Sometimes This Stuff Works

The obligatory silhouette shot

There are days when this work is thankless. Heck, sometimes, there are weeks.

On those days, it seems everyone who comes in the door wants to conduct a transactional relationship.

“Can you pay for my prescription?”

“Can you give me a sleeping bag?”

“Why do you only have grape jelly? I like strawberry better.”

And those are also the weeks you get inundated with emails from well-meaning church folk who want to come “help the homeless,” but only for two hours, and only on your day off, and only if they can take pictures of them and “the homeless.”

No. Just no.

No matter how many times I tell people that the opposite of homelessness is community, it still feels like there are people who don’t listen, and people who hear me but don’t care and don’t want to build community but only want to extract maximum value from the transaction and move on.

But then there are the other days – the days when it all feels worth it.

Yesterday was one of those days.

Ron is something else. He has long shaggy hair and a goatee and a thick country accent. He lives in the woods, largely by choice, as he “doesn’t get along with folks.” But he’s at our hospitality house a lot. He sticks around until the crowd gets to be too much, and then he’ll duck out for a while. But he’s one of our guests who has decided he has responsibilities – not ones we gave him, but ones he assumed.

Because he feels like he belongs.

One of the tasks Ron has assumed is taking the trash to the curb on Thursdays. When he doesn’t do it, we often forget, and then the trash piles up. But Ron doesn’t forget.

He also, like a lot of members of our community, has bad teeth. Dental care is hard for our folks, with all the carbs and sugar everyone wants to push on them, and the lack of free or low-cost dental clinics. But strings were pulled and sources were hunted for and finally, Ron had a much needed oral surgery.

Yesterday morning, the phone rang. I was in the office, and Elizabeth answered the phone. She shifts from professional voice to casual register, and chats for a minute. Then she hangs up.

“That was Ron,” she said. “He wanted us to know he made it through surgery and is doing fine. He also said to remind everyone that the trash needs to be taken to the curb today.”

And there you have it. Community in action. Calling not because he needed something, but because a) he knew we would want to know he is okay and b) because he wanted to make sure the community continued to function, even when he wasn’t here.

In other words, he called because he knew the community cared about him, and he cared about the community.

And those two things have not often been true in Ron’s life. And while they’re not everything, they’re not nothing, and are better than most other things on the list.

Some days, you realize that this stuff works. Some days, you see that community is happening in spite of all the conditioning against it. And it’s those days that give you the strength to go on.

Related: Dave And Communion, Acting Against Loneliness

So Tired

tired (mk-version)

“I’m just so tired.”

Her name was Kelli, and she and her pre-teen son have wandered through the system for weeks now, looking for a place to stay. Normally, single parents are one of the easiest groups to get off the streets. But her son Jimmy has autism, and is fairly low-functioning at that. Which was slowing her progress, considerably.

She had a career in health care, and after her relationship with Jimmy’s father fell apart, she moved in with family. But Jimmy takes a lot of work, and he likes to wander off. Finally, the last relative had asked them to leave after they decided Jimmy and their pet dog wouldn’t be able to get along.

They. Chose. The. Dog.

So she and Jimmy have been sleeping in her car. It’s hard to keep a job when you have to take care of your special needs son. You know what else is hard? Navigating the Homeless Industrial Complex.

You go to the county’s resource center for help. You go now, because you need help now. But you find you need to talk to a counselor, and in order to talk to a counselor, you have to be one of the first six people in line, at 10:30 a.m. It is now 3 p.m. So you sleep in your car tonight, and come back tomorrow at 10 a.m. There’s a line of 17 people waiting ahead of you, and they’re seeing the first six.

If you come back the next day, you find out that they need a letter from another agency to verify you are, in fact, homeless. So now you go through it all again, with another agency, to get a letter that says you are homeless, so you can go back to the first agency.

Where, nearly a week after you first sought help, they tell you there are no beds available. But they’ll put you on a waiting list.

I’ve seen battle-hardened vets break down in tears over the frustration of it all. It’s much harder when you’re trying to do all that while trying to watch your son, who sometimes wanders off and sometimes stands there and screams.

So Kelli and Jimmy are sitting in our counseling room, and Madeline is calling people, seeing if we can find a place anywhere, and I’m working the back channels, and Jimmy is eating a peanut butter sandwich.

The good news is that, utilizing our relationships, we found a place for them to be last night, and for the first time in a while they didn’t sleep in their car.

You know, one of the most common complaints I hear about people who don’t have homes from people who don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a home is that they’re lazy. There was even a time, long ago, when I believed that.

But now, I know the truth. They aren’t lazy. They’re just tired.

Choices

Trigger warning: The following post deals frankly with the issue of sexual assault. If that would be triggering to you, I encourage you to not read it. Please, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. 

Choice / Elección

The best definition of poverty I have ever heard of is from activist bell hooks, who said that poverty is lack of choice. I live in a “bad” neighborhood, and so do my neighbors. But I choose to live here, and love the diversity and the neighborhood. But my neighbors live here because this is where they can afford, and where the landlords don’t ask too many questions about rental histories and credit reports. I have the choice to live here – they do not.

The longer I do this work, the more convinced I am that choice is key to feeling human, and that having the ability to make choices, or agency, is the key to everything else. As my friend Lia Scholl says, the key to improving someone’s circumstances long-term is to increase her agency.

Last week I was talking to Madeline, our new Operations Manager, about this. We were talking about Amber, a member of our community who is partnered with a bad guy. He is abusive and mean and demeaning to her, and we pretty much all wish he would disappear change. And she is attractive and smart and gets lots of male attention, so it would seem she has lots of choices, and you wonder why she chose him.

Until you talk to her, and you realize she was sexually assaulted the first week she lived on the streets. In fact, she was assaulted three times. She felt powerless because she didn’t get to choose her sexual partners. Which is a horrible feeling to have.

So she chose this guy, who she says has good days when he treats her nice, and she calls him her boyfriend, because that normalizes the relationship. As one woman put it to me a long time ago – “It is either choose to sleep with one guy, and he will protect you from all the other guys, or have no choice at all about who you sleep with.

In other words, this jerk is her rape reduction – not rape prevention – strategy.

I wish she didn’t have to make that choice. You can say all day long that you wouldn’t make that choice – but it isn’t your choice to make. It’s hers. She was the one who got raped three times in one week and decided to do something to stop it.

And she made the best choice she believed was available to her.

The key in that sentence was the words “she believed”.

There were other choices she could have, theoretically, made. Choices that maybe we would have made, had we been in her shoes. But she doesn’t believe those choices are available to her.

So, the key to helping her is to increase the number of choices she has available to her, and to increase her agency, so she has the power to make those choices. And to give her the nonjudgmental space to feel loved by people who don’t want anything from her.

So that is why we do what we do. We create nonjudgmental space where people can feel loved, and where they can exercise agency and choice. And we pray, really, really hard, that one day, people like Amber will no longer have to make those choices.

But until that day comes, we have some work to do.

On Power And Control

the point

So much of the Homeless Industrial Complex revolves around power and control.

Really, it’s everywhere.

In the food pantry: Stand here, in this line. Here, take this food, we picked out for you. You don’t like beets? Sorry, better luck next time.

In the clothing closet: Wear these clothes I’m handing you.

At the Social Services office: Here’s the timeline for you to meet the goals I have decided are appropriate for you. If you don’t meet them, you will be labeled non-compliant and forfeit future assistance.

At the shelter: You must wake up at this time. You can’t come back in the building until this time. You can’t get in our housing program unless you attend this religious service from my religious tradition.

In the park, when the church folk come out: You don’t get a blanket unless you say this prayer. You have to tell me about how screwed up you are, while I don’t have to tell you anything about me, if you want my help. I have decided I know what is wrong with your life.

Power and control. Do what I say and accept my choices for your life, and you will be OK. Or in other words, give up your agency and choice if you want to not die in the woods. Or, exercise your choice and risk being labeled non-compliant and being banned from our facility or program.

Homelessness is first and foremost about loss. One of the things you lose is your right to choose, which severely limits your options. Nearly everything we do at Love Wins Ministries is about restoring people to community by increasing their agency and choice. Which means watching people use their agency to make choices you wouldn’t have chosen for them.

Like the other day, when I took a grown man to the supermarket to buy diapers for his daughter (who should have been potty trained by now) because he didn’t budget his money right this month. Or last month either, honestly. And it means getting frustrated because if he would use cloth diapers, he would save a ton of money – heck, he is home all day anyway, and the kid isn’t in daycare.

And while at the store, he asks if you would also buy him a Coke, because he has ran out of money, and only been drinking water the last three days. You want to shout, “Practically all I drink is water and coffee! You would save a fortune by cutting out soft drinks!”

Yes, he would save money if he would potty train his daughter, and if he would make a budget he wouldn’t be in financial crisis, and if he cut out soda he would be healthier and save money too, and cloth diapers would not only save him money but be better for the environment, too…

In other words, he would be better off if he would just do what I wanted him to do.

But he wouldn’t be him.

He isn’t the only person I know that makes poor decisions. Lots of people would retire as multimillionaires if they contributed the maximum to their 401K. Or would lose weight (and be richer) if they gave up that daily latte and saved the money instead. Or would still be married if they had focused less on work and more on their marriage. Or would be slimmer if they ate more protein and less simple carbohydrates.

All of us make bad choices at times, but all of us seem to think we have the right to make them. For example, we would be upset if our employers docked our pay, without our consent, in order to max out our retirement contribution for us. Even if it’s the smart choice. But we want the right to make that choice ourselves.

Loving your neighbor as yourself means, among other things, wanting your neighbor to have the same rights you have. Like the right to choose.

Which is hard to do when what you really want is to tell your neighbor what to do.

So, we make a big deal here out of self-examination. Analyzing our motives. Limiting our power and control. Maximizing people’s options and increasing their agency.

Because a world that is ran by power and control might be a more efficient world, but it wouldn’t be a world any of us would want to live in. Unless we somehow envision ourselves being the one exercising the power and control.

Which says a lot more about us than it does anyone we want to “help.”

Related: Sex Workers and Nesting Dolls“Feeding” Is For Cats And Babies

Grady’s Still Here

Climbing the mountain top...

For years, we served biscuits in the park on Saturday and Sunday. Regardless of what my week brought, I knew I could check in with folks on the weekend.

I would see Frank, and hear how his week was. Michael would come up to me and tell me about his latest argument with his mother. George would check in and brag about his six days of sobriety, or confess that last week’s 17 days of sobriety was now back down to three.  That has been my routine now for so long, it’s hard for me to imagine it being otherwise.

These days, we do that at the Oak City Outreach Center. A few Sundays ago, I saw my new friend Grady sitting in a corner by himself. The last time I had seen Grady, he was in a pretty dark place, so I stopped by to check in.

When I asked him how he was, he told me he was a little better. Then he told me he had realized that just being here, still having survived at all, was an accomplishment.

I laughed.

“Grady, it’s more than that. It’s a victory of sorts.”

I told him that in college, I had learned a poem by Langston Hughes. I told him Hughes wrote poems that spoke to the black experience in the first third of the last century, and that a lot of the time, even survival was hard. I asked Grady if I could tell him the poem.

“OK, but I don’t know any poetry.”

So, I recited the poem. It’s called Still Here.

been scared and battered.
My hopes the wind done scattered.
Snow has friz me,
Sun has baked me,

Looks like between ’em they done
Tried to make me

Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’–
But I don’t care!
I’m still here!

Grady’s eyes lit up. Behind me, I heard clapping. I turned around, and three large, stereotypical street tough looking guys were behind me, and asked me to tell them the poem again.

So I did.

Grady asked for the title of the poem, and wrote it in his notebook. And then he said, “It’s like he was saying, ‘The world has thrown everything at me it could, and I am still here. So I won.'”

I told him it was exactly like that.

*   *   *

A couple of days later, I saw Grady in the bus station. He was looking tired, and wearing the same clothes he had been wearing on Sunday. He saw me and a big grin shot across his face. I was some 25 feet away, and headed to my bus. I waved.

From across the station, he shouted, “Hugh! I’m still here!”

And some days, that is victory enough.

Related: The Opposite Of Homelessness Is Community

Naming People Who Are Poor

Hello, my name is anonymous

Love Wins Ministries has a small chapel service for our community on Sundays. It looks like any other low-church Protestant worship service, albeit with worse singers and shorter attention spans than most. The one thing that makes it really different, however, is that it’s attended by our volunteers and our friends who live outside, which sometimes makes it… interesting.

Like a lot of churches, we have a time in the service for prayers of the people – where we name our “hopes and dreams, our fears and our prayers before God and our community.” And like lots of churches, the list of things we pray for runs a pretty regular list.

People who are seeking jobs.

People’s health.

Peace in the world.

Victims of crime.

For those who are homeless, especially in bad weather.

See? Just like in your church. In fact, this world I live and work in seems so normal to me that sometimes I forget how we are different.

This past Sunday, during our prayer time, we named people who were sick, and asked for prayer. We named people who had new jobs, and celebrated. We named people we knew would be sleeping outside in the upcoming single digit nights, and asked for their protection.

As I was standing at the front of the room, leading the prayer time, listening to the names being called out, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a volunteer last winter. She had just came to her first chapel service, and wanted to process it with me. Something had rocked her during the service, and she wanted to name it.

“All my life, I’ve prayed for those who were homeless. You named people who were homeless. All my life, I have prayed for people who needed jobs. You named people who needed jobs. I’ve always prayed for people to be safe in the cold weather. You named people who sleep outside in the cold weather. It was the first time I have ever prayed for people who are poor by name.”

Father Gustavo Gutierrez in Brazil famously said, “So you say you love the poor? Name them.”

It’s one thing to know that people are sleeping in the cold. It’s a very different thing to know David and Maria and Shelia and Timmy and Quincy and Grady are sleeping in the cold tonight. It’s one thing to pray for people who don’t have enough food. It’s another to pray for Maria, who can’t afford formula for her infant.

Do we really love people who are poor? Not if we don’t know their names.

Related: St. Basil on the PoorWhat It Means To Be Poor

Homelessness Is A Series Of Losses

Alone

His name is Grady, and he’s sitting in a rocking chair in the church nursery, holding a stuffed animal in his hands, with tears streaming down his face. We were sitting in the nursery because it was the only quiet place to have what was turning into an intense conversation.

“It’s all gone. I’m 58 years old, and it’s all gone. I’ve lost everything, man.”

I was listening, and then tried to say something pastoral. Apparently, I was failing.

“I was in the park today, and they were handing out lunch bags. There was a thing of yogurt in the bag, and I got excited, because I like yogurt. Then I realized they forgot to put a spoon in the bag. I sat on the ground and cried, because I don’t even have a spoon! I’m 58 years old and I don’t even own a damn spoon.”

*     *     *

We tell people who come to work with us that homelessness is best understood as a series of losses.

If you become homeless, you’ve lost your home – by definition. But you lose things before that.

You lose the ability to pay your rent or mortgage, which means that you probably lost your job.

If you lose your job, that brings with it attendant losses – you lose your relationship with your co-workers, the socialization that comes with having a place to go every day, your title – you have lost all of that.

If you’re married or partnered, your relationship will almost certainly not survive the next few months.  The kids will end up with the parent with the best support system, so if you’re homeless now, that isn’t you.

The night you leave the house for the last time, you’ll get the things that matter most to you – Granddad’s flag that was on his casket, the photo album of your children, your mom’s ashes – and you will put them in your car, so they will be safe.

You’ll lose the car. I practically guarantee it. Either you still owe money on it, and they’ll come and find you and take it from you, or you’ll park it in the wrong place and it’ll get towed, or it’ll break down and you won’t have money to get it fixed, and then it’ll get towed. Once they tow it, storage costs start at $100 a day. You won’t have any money to get the car out of storage.

And they won’t let you in to get the flag or the photo album or the ashes. They’re gone now, along with everything you didn’t have in your hands when they took your car.

You’re on the streets now. You only have what’s in your hands and on your back. Now, you begin to “look homeless.” It’s harder to find places to clean up, and you don’t have anything to change into, anyway.

The soup kitchen will serve you a nourishing, high calorie meal, but they decide what you’re served. Have Celiac? Too bad. Have IBS? So sorry. You’re Muslim and don’t eat pork? Keep the line moving, buddy.

You’ve lost the right to choose.

You’ll get ran off if you sit on park benches, if you linger in McDonalds when it’s cold outside, if you sit in the bus station when you don’t actually have a ticket. You see, you have lost the right to actually “be” somewhere.

So, you have lost your friends, your job, your place in society, your house, your spouse, your kids, your car, your family heirlooms, your clothes, and your right to even choose what you eat or where you go.

All that’s left is your dignity, and that slips by pretty quick. Since there’s nowhere you’re allowed to be, it isn’t long before you’re pooping in the woods. Because everyone wants to feed you, but no one stops to think what happens after you eat. Pooping in the woods is hard, and cleaning up after yourself in the woods after you poop is harder. You’ll begin to smell, and you’ll know you smell. Before long, you don’t even want to be around people, just so they won’t reject you.

It’s often at this point that people find us. When they’re alone. When they have nowhere to be. When they have lost all choice. When they have lost all hope.

Everything we do at Love Wins Ministries is designed to restore loss. And loss has to be restored in reverse.

So we don’t start with things like housing and jobs. We start with things like dignity and respect. We ask you your name and we share our names. We welcome you in, and give you a place to just “be.” We don’t serve meals, but give you options. Want to make yourself a sandwich? There’s the stuff. You can fix your own cup of coffee the way you like it. Or you can sit and stare at the wall if that’s your thing.

Either way, you’ll be treated with dignity and respect, and your choices will be honored.

We find that by starting with restoring things like dignity and respect and choice, you begin to find ways to restore the other things. And slowly, brick by brick, you can begin the hard work of restoration.

But this time, you won’t be alone.

Related: Acting Against LonelinessThank You For AskingMeet Anthony: When Living In The Woods Isn’t The Worst Part

We’re That Place

Avion & his dad

This week I spoke at the Wednesday night community dinner held at Trinity United Methodist Church. Trinity is our landlord, and I wanted to bring them up to date on how the transition has gone thus far.

As I often do, I told them some stories about our friends who come to the hospitality house. And one of the stories I told was about my friend Avion.

Avion is a toddler. He gets into things, as toddlers do. And when he does, his mom gets frustrated, as moms do.

The space we have at Trinity UMC includes the church’s nursery. It’s still theirs, but we share the use of it during the week. So when Avion was tired and fussy, we opened the nursery and invited him and his mom and dad to play with the toys in there.

I was walking down the hall and looked in the little window in the door, and saw his dad, a street-tough young guy in a black hoodie, on the floor with Avion, playing with blocks. Dad would build things, and Avion would knock them down and laugh. As toddlers do.

Later I walked by and saw them both laid out on the floor, father and son, napping. Mom had dozed off in the rocking chair.

I thought for a minute about how difficult it is to raise toddlers under the best of circumstances, and how hard it must be in an overcrowded shelter to find a quiet place to put your kid down for a nap.

I thought about how frustrating it must be to see your kid acting up, and know that people who don’t know you are judging your parenting, when in reality, your kid is just tired and you don’t have anywhere for him to take a nap.

Later I walked by again and saw Avion and his dad playing on a riding toy. That’s when I snapped the picture at the top of the page.

When we want to help people, we often think of doing huge things. Feeding people. Housing people. Clothing people.

But sometimes, helping people just means making sure they have a place to play with their kid, and giving them a quiet place for the kid to take a nap.

And thanks to our partnership with Trinity, this time, we’re able to be that place.

Related: Everyone Should Have A Place To BeHarold Has A Place To Be