Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

 “A Cot is Not a Home”

Sunday, July 15, 2007

 

 

Luke 16: 19-31

 
Dean Snyder

Rev. Dean Snyder

 

I have a short video I’d like to show you this morning, but I want to say a few words first.

 

I have been a city pastor almost all of my adult life. I was the pastor of a church that began the first homeless shelter for families in the city of Philadelphia. My wife Jane was the first director of the Philadelphia Committee to End Homelessness and was director of the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Homeless and Adult Services during the Wilson Good administration.

 

I wrote an article about homelessness in Christian Century magazine in the late 70’s entitled “Thank God for the Train Stations.” A graduate student later told me it was the first article indexed in the Guide to Periodic Literature that used the word “homelessness.”

 

Jane, in the non-profit sector, and I, in the church sector, helped do some of the earliest work being done to understand and address homelessness in contemporary American society.

 

Jane has moved on to deal with other aspects of low-income housing. I am – I guess the word is – proud to again be the pastor of a church that is doing good and important work with homeless people through our Walk-In Mission. We are one of only a couple of places in Washington where people can get help getting copies of their birth certificates and identification. Without identification it is almost impossible to get any other help here. And, because of our volunteers, our Walk-In Mission is a place of respect and dignity. I am proud of the work our Walk-In Mission does.

 

But I need to confess that, after many years of being a city pastor, I had given up on finding a way to really address the needs of the most chronic people we all pass on the sidewalks and see sleeping under the bridges of Rt. 395. I’d come to assume that many of the most chronic homeless people, the ones I pass on Pennsylvania Avenue when I am walking to church early Sunday mornings, many of them struggling with mental illnesses, would always be homeless, perhaps moving from shelter to shelter from time to time, but always homeless.  

 

But thanks to work being done by Jana Meyer and the Washington Interfaith Network – WIN – and Amy Vruno and others, I have actually begun to hope again that, if we choose to, we can make a real difference in the lives of those living on our sidewalks and under our bridges.

 

This summer we are doing a sermon series on “A Place Like Home.” We want to explore the idea of home…home as a concrete place, home as a metaphor, home as a symbol.

 

And I want to start out this discussion with the concrete reality of homelessness.

 

Some of us who are members of WIN have been working with a group from New York City called Common Ground, a pioneer in what is called supportive housing for the homeless. 60 Minutes did two stories about the Times Square, a former welfare hotel in New York City that is a project of Common Ground.

 

I’d like to ask you to watch one of the reports done by 60 Minutes about the Times Square and Common Ground.

 

(Show video.)

 

Common Ground (www.commonground.org) and other organizations such as Pathways to Housing (www.pathwaystohousing.org/Articles/PathwaysDC.html) headed here in Washington by Foundry’s former minister of mission, the Rev. Linda Kaufman, have demonstrated that many of the people whom we have come to assume are beyond help aren’t.

 

There are two principles that make all the difference:

 

One is the principle of “housing first.”

 

Housing first says that you get people into housing first, before you try to help them with their other problems, such as health issues, mental illness or addictions. Being on the street or in a shelter makes all the other problems worse. Think of the hardest problems you’ve had to face in life and now imagine if you had to try to address those problems while you were living on the street or in a shelter.

 

Whatever people’s other problems are, it is a 100 times harder to deal with them on the street than in stable housing.

 

The second principle is to help the most chronic homeless persons first. Deal with the most serious needs first…the people that many of us had given up hope on.

 

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point and Blink, wrote an article in the New Yorker last February entitled “Million Dollar Murray.” It is about a homeless man with an alcohol problem named Murray Barr who cost the city of Reno a million dollars in emergency services over a 10 year period until he died on the streets of Reno. Here’s the irony – Murray functioned well whenever he was in a supervised setting.[i] Gladwell suggests that for an investment of about $15,000 a year Murray could have lived a productive life and he might still be alive today.

 

We – Foundry and other WIN members – are asking Mayor Fenty for 2,500 units of supportive housing for our city’s most chronic homeless people. Almost all the social service people we have spoken to over the past months have agreed that supportive housing is the strategy that makes sense. When we’ve asked what keeps us form doing it, their answer has been that the only thing missing is the political will to make it happen.

 

Foundry and the other churches of WIN will help provide the will. If we can make a difference in the lives of the people living on our city streets – the people sleeping on our front steps here at Foundry – we ought to do it.

 

Our Scripture this morning is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Clarence Jordan, the radical Southern Baptist preacher who founded Koinonia Farms in Georgia, used to say that there is only one sermon that you can preach on this text...and he said the sermon is this: “If you don’t care about the poor you are going to hell.”

 

That is not exactly the sermon I would preach.

 

But I am willing to go this far. Fred Buechner in his book The Longing for Home says there are two kinds of homeless people.  One is the “homeless ones who have no vote, no power, nobody to lobby for them, and who might as well have no faces even, the way we try to avoid the troubling sight of them in the streets of the cities where they roam like stray cats.”

 

The second kind of homeless people, he says, are “people like you and me [who] are apt to…have homes all over the place but not to be really at home in any of them.”[ii]

 

I suspect the two may be related…that as long as homeless men and women live on our streets and sleep on our church steps, the rest of us can not be fully at home in our homes. If we are not in hell, we certainly are not in heaven…which biblically is really our home.

 

There is a spiritual cost to living in a world where others are homeless. Our spiritual at-home-ness may depend on whether we are willing to care enough about our physically homeless brothers and sisters to create the political will to end homelessness.

 

Shelters are not enough.

 

In the early days of homelessness as we know it today there was a man Jane and I knew in Philadelphia named Roy Leeds. He was a veteran of the Viet Nam War and he lived in whatever shelter would take him.

 

There were a lot of public hearings in those days in which we argued for an increase in shelter beds to help homeless people get in out of the elements. We were trying to convince the city to open shelters so people could get in out of the snow and rain.

 

Roy used to come to those hearings and sign up to testify. And he would always say the same thing.  His testimony rambled a bit, I will admit, but he always started and ended his te4stimony the same way. Roy would say these words: “A cot is not a home.”

 

Well, these 25 years later I want to say that Roy was right. Twenty-five years later we need to listen to Roy and move past the idea that temporary shelters are a solution to homelessness. A cot is not a home. A home is a home, and none of us will be at home until we are all at home.    

 

 

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[i] http://www.gladwell.com/2006/2006_02_13_a_murray.html

[ii] Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home (Harper San Francisco), 140.