The day really was perfect. The sun was out, the wind was light, there wasn’t too much humidity, and I was invited to accompany a group of folks who were bringing food and supplies to people living in an encampment not too far from the church I serve. We packed the SUV with bagged lunches and socks and health care kits (which are gallon-sized bags full of hygiene necessities.) We pulled up to a place a few city lots wide, where there were at least 30 dwellings set up. Some were tents, some were lean-tos built with pallets and blue tarps and ropes. The whole place was very quiet. Katie the nursing professor had been invited back by the residents to bring more supplies and her medical expertise. She brought us as additional sets of hands, to get folks what they needed.
We went from tent to tent asking folks if they wanted bagged lunches. Did they need some socks? What kind did they prefer? Did they want to check in with the nurse? A few folks came out of their tents to help us make sure everyone got what they needed. Many folks were coming down from their high. I’ll never forget a woman who was brought to us in a wheelchair, who was both slumped over and rigid as the drugs left her body. The nurse spoke with her friend to better understand what was happening and reassured them that they could continue to care for her in the camp, but that if they saw certain things, they would need to call the paramedics.
A chicken-and-egg conundrum
For nine years I have been one of the pastors for people experiencing homelessness in Minneapolis. I love the people I am called to serve and each person has their own unique story of how they came to be without housing. No two people I have met found themselves in an encampment or shelter because of the same thing. And there are a handful of things that folks get exposed to when they are no longer stably housed. One of those things is addiction.
Some folks I’ve known are homeless because their addiction has taken everything away from them including their home. Some people lost their housing for a different reason but now in order to deal with the trauma that is being without a home, they are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Being homeless is hard and awful, but homeless people are none of those things. People with lived experience of homelessness are loving and beautiful and ornery and difficult, just like people who have never experienced homelessness.
When most housed folks struggle with addiction, there are support systems and access to care that just don’t exist for this community. It is really hard to stay sober and clean when you don’t have a safe place to work your program. It’s hard when there are people who specifically target the encampments or the shelters to provide drugs of choice. It’s difficult to stay in a shelter because you aren’t able to feed your addiction there, and detox is full, so you have to sleep outside. It’s hard to stay sober when you are just always so very cold. Addiction and housing instability feel like a chicken-and-egg conundrum.
Which comes first? Which do we need to fix first?
We are not that different
First, as faithful people we are called to walk alongside our neighbors, accompanying them in this life with all its joys and struggles. The only way we can do that is to constantly remember that we are not that different. Some of us who are housed are also folks in recovery. In my first congregation there was a man named John. Everyone knew John, and everyone knew John was in long-term recovery. He proudly let me hold his 30 year coin on the anniversary of his sober day. John was the first person I called when folks wanted to get clean and sober. He was an amazing mentor. He took folks to meetings and court. He taught me how to go to meetings and he taught me how much I really didn’t know.
Sitting in our pews and meeting in our church basements are people with a vast experiential knowledge just hoping someone will ask them to share. Look into ministries like the Ignatian Spirituality Project where people recovering from homelessness and addiction sit with people who are housed for a time of deep listening to God and to one another. Moments like this rehumanize us to each other and remind us all of how much God deeply loves each of us.
Second, we are called to not only get to know our neighbors, but we are called to listen to them and elevate their voices so that change can be brought to shelters and courts and recovery programs. People are often denied access to the care they need because they have racked up a collection of livability crimes. We call them the crimes of being homeless. Things like public urination and public intoxication can keep people in jail instead of in treatment. These crimes stop people from being able to secure stable housing. In our county things like “Drug Court” have been amazing ways to help folks get housing and help instead of just constantly locking them up and expecting a behavior to magically change without support. Communities with “Housing First” policies can show how successful people can be when they don’t have to scramble for a spot at the shelter or a tent every night. When we get folks stably housed then they can have a home base from which they can work on recovering from their addictions.
Finally, be the people God has called to end the stigma. No one grows up thinking, “When I’m an adult I want to be without a home and have a hard-core addiction.” This is no one’s plan for their lives and for everyone with these experiences they have hopes and dreams and ways they want to be in the world. See them as fellow creations of God. See folks who struggle with addiction and homelessness as your siblings in Christ. Make space for them in your lives, your pews and your advocacy. Listen to them and their stories and listen to them about how they want to solve the problems they are facing. Walk alongside them, as the road is often arduous and long, as they work their way back to themselves. Learn more about recovery programs in your area and what has worked and what has not. Learn more about supportive housing in your area and learn more about harm reduction. Be humble and know that there is so much more about these folks and their lives than you will ever learn, and just show up when you are asked to come alongside. This is good and holy work.