“It’s Like They’re Throwaways”

(Above: Bret Brennan, with Gail Sacco)
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BRET BRENNAN, 48, DIED LAST MONTH—one of the 42 homeless in my city (Las Vegas, Nevada) who so far this year have not survived. Suffering from cancer, he’d been living on the street until homeless activist Gail Sacco got him into a home she owns. Bret died November 17 in a hospice Gail arranged for him.

“I’ve had homeless friends who have died on the street,” Gail says. “It’s like they’re throwaways.”

Earlier this year, outreach workers from Straight From the Streets came across 61-year-old Willie Danielson, sleeping on the ground and suffering from advanced untreated lung cancer. Straight’s director, Linda Lera Randle-El, said the homeless organization arranged for housing and some medical care, but Willie’s health continued to decline, and he died in early November.

“He didn’t die lying out on the street,” Linda says. “We wanted to give him some quality of life, someone to talk to, someone to call out for.”

Of the 42 homeless who died (39 men, three women), eight accidentally overdosed on drugs. Four were beaten or shot to death. Two died for lack of food. Five died of exposure to the elements (summer temps can reach 120; winters go below freezing).  Most of them died alone, along the side of the road, in alleys, vacant lots, or on the concrete floor of a drainage tunnel.

Homeless outreach workers here hold an annual December vigil to memorialize those who died with few or no one to mourn or remember them. Similar events are taking place nationwide this month.

Like many American cities hard-hit by the current economic downturn, homelessness here has spiked, as hundreds of the formerly employed run out of jobs and benefits and are forced to live in their cars or on the streets. Our local county has an estimated 14,00o homeless, including 7,000 homeless children and 4,300 homeless veterans. But though Las Vegas has the nation’s highest rates of  homelessness, ,unemployment, and home foreclosures, this is not a friendly place toward those who are down on their luck.

  • City leaders, including the police, mayor, and local business leaders, continually support rousting the homeless from their makeshift cardboard box or tent “homes” and send them scattering to find some other area of town to “live” in. It’s not good for tourism to have the homeless anywhere in public view.
  • The city’s mayor even proposed busing  all homeless in the city to a former prison 25 miles south of the city, so the sight of them wouldn’t disturb the high rollers here to enrich the casinos.
  • In July, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to feed the homeless in any public place, such as a city park, or on the streets or in homeless shantytowns. This includes portable soup kitchens that had been providing food. So feeding the homeless outdoors, even on the part of churches and other charitable organizations, is now criminalized in the city. In The Palms—one of the city’s upscale hotel/casinos—a suite can go for $25,000 a night. But in the same city, it’s illegal to feed the homeless—even if they are such because of the ravages of military service, mental illness, or losing one’s job.
  • In the local newspaper, some letters rail against the homeless, blaming them as lazy parasites on society who should do what others do and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

As a Christian, I am convinced that those of us who follow Jesus have a clear obligation to do all we can for those who are down on their luck. Some, of course, are in that position through no fault of their own. Weeks ago, they may have held down a paying job and been paying on a mortgage. But the economy has made paupers out of many who were not long ago “productive” members of society—people who would give anything to still be in that position.

But what about those who are on the streets because of their own bad choices—their addictions of drugs or alcohol? Aren’t we justified in letting them reap what they’ve sown, even if that means dying in an alley in 120-degree heat? If I read my Bible correctly and focus on the example of Jesus, I see no precedent for ignoring the suffering of those who are in pain because of their own bad decisions. Which ones of us, after all, even if we still have a home, have made only perfect choices all our lives?

As time closes in on the end, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even here in America. Those who have care less and less for those who have not. It’s only going to get worse.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t do all I can to follow what I am convinced is the example Jesus left me. I can volunteer some time to help those in my area who are reaching out to the homeless. I can choose not to be the priest or the Levite, but to emulate instead the Good Samaritan and be moved with compassion by the plight of the man lying at the side of the road.

The priest and the Levite could probably advance all kinds of logical-sounding arguments for their lack of action. But something tells me those arguments matter little to the One who unfailingly helped the down-and-out—even if they were there in part because of their own bad choices.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. The tragedy is that we feel so superior to people without a decent place to live and never give a thought to how little it would take for us to end up in the same category. We are all brothers and sisters together in this world. Let’s look for ways, even small gestures, to let the homeless know we care for them. Churches and other non-profit organizations find the time to set up special programs for these people. We can help them. We should help them.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Kregg Miller on December 17, 2009 at 12:46 am

    A few random observations from a cranky Conservative: 😉

    1. I’ll bet you $100 to your favorite homeless charity that you will find few if ANY ‘new homeless’ persons amongst the 42 that died on your streets. I will place my money on the reality that most – and probably all – of those who died were habitually ‘homeless’ and never HAD a mortgage or a job go bad on them within recent memory.

    Point: You cannot clump the population of the ‘new homeless’ who have recently lost a job/mortgage with the ‘habitually homeless’ that choose to live on the streets because of one mental disorder or another. They are completely different demographics with completely different causes and cures.

    2. Your ‘homelessness has spiked’ statement bears no import to the ‘habitually homeless’ issue as they have ALWAYS been on the street and are essentially immune to economic upturns and downturns.

    Point: Economic downturns do not cause people to die in culverts, from drug overdoses, or murder. People who have spiraled down into mental illness and addictions and become ‘street people’ do these things – not those otherwise productive members of society who have lost a job and been foreclosed on.

    3. The figures you cite for Las Vegas homelessness beg certain analysis: Las Vegas’ population is 478,434, and North Las Vegas population is 175,381. Given 14,000 homeless, 7,000 children, and 4,300 vets, we can conclude that 1/2 of the total homeless are dependent children, leaving only 7,000 total homeless adults from which we subtract 4,300 vets which leaves us 2,700 adults who are not veterans. Given that most vets are male lets presume that the remaining 2,700 are female mothers responsible for 2.6 children each. I will bet another $100 to your favorite charity that existing Federal and State welfare programs cover the vast majority of this demographic with at least food and shelter. So, for 7,000 children and 2,700 mothers (9,700 or 70% of the total ‘homeless population’) there are well-developed existing programs to keep them off the street and fed. In fact, google ‘ “Las Vegas” welfare’ and you will find a list of homeless shelters, child shelters, etc. that advertise this very service.

    Point: At best, 2.14% of your population is ‘homeless’. Of that 2.14% a major percentage is not at risk of dying in a culvert, being murdered, or burning up in 120 degree heat because they are being served by a welfare system that serves their basic needs on both a temporary and long-term basis. The official definition of ‘homeless’ encompasses a lot of people who are not out living in shanty towns and dying in culverts.

    4. You could invite as many homeless folks as your lawn will fit to set up their shanties in your front yard to help relieve “The Palms” and it’s high-rollers of their burden.

    Point: Why should a private property owner be required to accept both the liability of squatters on his property OR have his private rights usurped by another? And, presuming you haven’t already called the city to offer your front and backyards for a homeless shanty town, why would you denigrate others for what you would not do yourself?

    5. Busing the homeless to a vacant prison would be a GREAT way to give them shelter, food, heat, a/c, etc. in one place instead of spreading services all over the city at a greatly increased cost of delivery. The problem will be finding those who TRULY seek shelter over the freedom of the streets to live there.

    Point: Why denigrate a solution that might save those lives you imply are at risk simply because the quarters are inconvenient to downtown or imply to you some second-class standard of living? If I was homeless and had a chance at such cushy surroundings I’d be more than a little peeved if you poo-pooed the idea because it was distasteful to your sensibilities.

    6. By your own reporting the city has NOT ‘criminalized’ feeding the homeless outdoors – your statement is clear that it is only prohibited on public property. Any church – including yours – can apparently open their parking lot OR their buildings to feeding as many homeless as they can fit onto the property. (Your church parking lot might be a GREAT place to start a ‘shantytown’ – just make sure you pay your liability insurance first.)

    Point: NIMBY (not in my backyard) has different connotations (read ‘excuses’) when its YOU demanding it rather than some nameless commercial entity existing only for filthy lucre…

    7. Your statement: “Some, of course, are in that position through no fault of their own. Weeks ago, they may have held down a paying job and been paying on a mortgage. But the economy has made paupers out of many who were not long ago “productive” members of society—people who would give anything to still be in that position.” Some? How many? A majority? A minority? If ‘some’ are homeless ‘through no fault of their own’ what percentage is this? And, what has ‘fault’ have to do with it?

    Point: Exploiting the hardships of a minority to build an argument by implication for the majority is disingenuous. Its like saying: “Some women are murderous felons” and using what is a true statement to imply that all women are murderous felons… Again, you are implying that ALL the ‘homeless’ share the same risks to life and limb and it simply isn’t true.

    8. Your statement: “But what about those who are on the streets because of their own bad choices—their addictions of drugs or alcohol? Aren’t we justified in letting them reap what they’ve sown, even if that means dying in an alley in 120-degree heat?” The answer is a resounding ‘YES’ in that man sows what he reaps. But read below… 😉

    Point: The point is not one of justification – but of sanctification. Christ asks us to CARE – not to justify. If we are christ-like (sanctified) it will not matter the motivation or cause behind our fellow man’s plight but we will serve their needs in spite of that cause. (I”m not particularly arguing WITH you on this but far too many people PC the issue of whether derelicts are responsible for themselves and most raise the justification issue but don’t like their own answers to it.

    9: You state: “As time closes in on the end, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Even here in America. Those who have care less and less for those who have not. It’s only going to get worse.” I’d ask you to prove both of these cliches’ because we’ve always had both the poor and the rich and we’ve always had the rich taking care of the poor (as a single example think along the lines of the billions that rich people have donated to create hospitals, missions, clinics, social services, etc…).

    Point: This is a well-written piece, why lard it up with unnecessary lib cliches? 😉

    Ok. Refute me… 😉

    Reply

  3. Thanks for the comment, Kregg. You’ve posted the standard conservative talking points here, and that’s OK. However, from prior interchanges with you, I realize that you see your world through a conservative lens, and that what matters to you is attacking anything that you see as “liberal.” And if a response then comes back, you’ll happily engage in an endless series of replies and rebuttals. You ended your comment here with an invitation for me to “refute” you.

    I decline that invitation, first, because I do not wish to become involved in an ongoing ping-pong of debate. I did not write my post in hopes of generating a political debate and don’t derive satisfaction, as some do, from political warfare. But second, I decline to refute you, because unlike you, I do not see my world through a political “liberal-conservative” lens. You charge me with stating “lib cliches.” But though I have an eclectic blend of personal political views, my lens in writing this post was not political. My lens was my personal biblical understanding of my obligation, as a follower of Christ, to my fellow human beings in need.

    Yes, there’s much I’d want to refute in your comment, were I drawn to that (everything from inaccurate city population figures, to many statements based on purely personal conjecture, not fact). But I do not write…whether in my books, magazine articles, or blogs…so that I can then spend time in debate and argument and political-verbal combat. I welcome comments, but will not be drawn into extended verbal jousting. Therefore this current interchange will end here. You are more than welcome, of course, to state your views at any length on a blog of your own.

    The man, woman, or child in my town who hasn’t eaten for days, who lives in a car or on the street, or who is dying on a sidewalk of cancer, likely cares nothing about liberal versus conservative politics. And if my own personal political views cause me to condemn those in need rather than help them, that’s not a Christianity I can live with.

    Reply

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