(Above: Bret Brennan, with Gail Sacco)
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.