Tag Archives: Homelessness

Where Christ Belongs

Rather than “putting Christ back in Christmas”, I’d settle for putting Christ back in Christians.

The above is a variation on a statement I saw on Facebook that really spoke to me — and apparently to more than a few of my Facebook friends, because my reposting of it went “viral” — at least as much as you could use that term to describe the reaction to something I’ve posted there.

This is in comparison to what I normally post on Facebook, which generally doesn’t raise eyebrows because it’s either “For The Day’s Journey”, my daily posting of a thought-provoking or at least inspirational quote from someone more eloquent (and renowned) than me, or “Welcome to the New Week”, my weekly Bible verse — or maybe just a rundown of the night’s dinner menu courtesy of my husband, who rules our kitchen and swears to me that it’s more than just where the coffee pot lives.

But back to that Paul-viral Facebook post. Had I struck a nerve? Had I tapped into a vein of social sentiment? Had I accessed the zeitgeist? I think so. I think a lot of people — not just my Facebook friends — are tired of the hypocrisy of “traditional”, conservative, “evangelical” Christianity.

I think people are tired of opening their Facebook feed to see what their friends are up to and instead slipping on the social media equivalent of a floor smeared with equine fecal matter in the form of such heartwarming fare as proclamations by none other than Roy Moore, Alabama’s self-proclaimed defender of the 10 Commandments, who pompously claims to have God’s ear when it comes to what is wrong with America — and who, despite losing his Senate race, still got 48 percent of the vote despite being generally a horse’s ass and specifically accused of (basically) pedophilia.

I think people are tired of seeing evidence all around them that their fellow man continues to act in such a short-sighted and self-absorbed fashion when confronted with situations where our instruction from God is actually, I believe, rather clear: Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.

Here in Atlanta, just in time for Christmas, we’re ignoring that instruction as it concerns our homeless brothers and sisters. Here in Atlanta, we live in a city where the establishment fought shamelessly for the better part of a decade to shut down the city’s largest homeless shelter — which just happened to be situated on some seriously prime real estate.

Here in Atlanta, there was apparently no plan being made during that decade-long fight to account for how the 700-800 people the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter was serving daily might survive with some semblance of human dignity.

Did I mention that every other shelter in town is already full?

But instead of focusing on how to get homeless people off the streets as winter approaches, your local government has determined that the best thing they can do for the homeless right now is to keep you from offering them food.

Yup.

There’s apparently a local ordinance that prohibits the distribution of food in an organized way to, basically, strangers. And your local law enforcement is now hellbent on enforcing it.

Here’s what it says, according to a pamphlet that’s been proffered to yours truly on the streets of Atlanta by well-meaning law enforcement personnel (prefaced by a mealy-mouthed preamble in said pamphlet):

We sincerely thank you for your interest in serving Atlanta’s people in need. As providers of services to these groups 24/7, year-round, we are committed to helping them in ways that lead to changed lives and lasting self-sufficiency.

In our experience, the best way to assist people in need is through places with sanitary kitchens, safe shelter, and services that help them address their problems and move forward in their lives. By contrast, feeding and donating to people on our streets is not a long-term solution.

… Public Safety’s goal is to increase police visibility and improve the quality of life within the City of Atlanta’s Government District. This will be accomplished through the Enforcement of City Ordinances and State laws and Partners for Home and Atlanta Continuum of Care to address the homelessness…

Did you know a Permit is required?

(Fulton County) Sec. 34-152. – Permit requirements

(a) Permit required. A valid permit issued by the board of health shall be required prior to operation of a food service establishment. Such permit shall be obtained in compliance with the rules and regulations of the State of Georgia governing food service, GA. Comp. R. & Regs. 290-5-14

(b) Rule 511-6-1-.08 Special Food Service Operations

Rather than feeding or donating to individuals on Atlanta’s streets, please consider directing your generosity to one of the great organizations working tirelessly to improve the lives of people in need in our communities

The arrogance continues with a list of 10 organizations that the pamphlet recommends should be the real focus of our energy, we who so inadequately seek to serve the homeless. And let me be clear: I am not disparaging the groups themselves — which are for the most part reputable, worthy and doing good in the community. Rather, I’m pointing up the city’s sleight of hand in making it seem that these 10 points of light are adequately filling the gap in homeless services left wide open by the closing of Peachtree-Pine.

But that isn’t even remotely true, and here’s why:

  • Most of these organizations close by 5pm. There are a couple that are open until 8:45pm and one that is 24 hours — but this last one serves homeless youth only.
  • There are no purely family shelters.
  • None of them provides ongoing meals.
  • These organizations are spread out all over the city… making it extremely difficult for their clientele to access the services they do provide.
  • Many organizations have a cutoff as to how many clients they can service at a time. People can find themselves waiting in long lines for hours or more and still not making the cut.
  • None of these organizations is willing to work with transgender folks.
  • Many of these organizations require a tuberculosis test before one can get housing or services.

So please tell me how, in all that is holy, are these people who are without resources or transportation, who are hungry, who can also be dealing with addiction or mental illness or disability — how are they supposed to access what the mealy-mouthed pamphlet blithely refers to as a continuum of care? How long should they wait? How far should they walk? And let’s be honest: Whose way should they stay out of?

And I’m so not done here. Because on top of all of this is the criminalization of homelessness. Here’s how it starts: In the state of Georgia, you cannot get a driver’s license or state ID without a birth certificate, Social Security card and two pieces of mail sent to your residence.

Yes, you read that correctly: Two pieces of mail to your residence. Good luck, homeless people!

Plus it doesn’t take longer than a couple of weeks for a newly homeless person to have lost whatever they might have been carrying all this documentation in to a beat cop who confiscated it, a fellow traveler who stole it — or simply to “the shuffle” of constantly being on the move and eventually losing track of almost anything.

The last time I went to renew my driver’s license, I had to mail $50 to New Jersey to get my birth certificate. How many homeless people can manage that?

Anyway, the next step in the criminalization of homelessness is that once you’ve pretty much lost the ability to prove who you are, you’re eventually going to find yourself arrested for loitering, trespassing, shoplifting, vagrancy, public urination, public intoxication, indecent exposure or any number of other petty crimes that happen along the way when you’re just trying to survive on the streets.

The result being that the city’s jails double as unofficial homeless shelters. So one of the badges that goes along with being homeless is the Unemployability badge, because you now have a criminal record thanks to your inability to find a place to live, stay out of the way, prove who you are or pay a bond or a fine.

And of course, the only thing the average homeless person is actually guilty of is generally addiction, mental health issues, or a disability of some kind. They end up on the streets because they can’t get the help they need.

Or they can’t find work that pays a living wage — a situation that’s happening in my own household, where my 62-year-old husband, a proud Army veteran who has worked in the computing field for the better part of four decades suddenly finds himself laid off and interviewing for a job at Wal-Mart that pays $9 an hour with no benefits. Which adds up to $360 a week, with no health insurance, before the Federal government takes their pound of flesh.

So let’s just say that when I contemplate what it must be like for someone to slide into homelessness, I can empathize from a very real place right now.

In conclusion, this Christmas, could we try to take seriously what our faith teaches?

Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. (James 3:17-18)

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love. And don’t take yourself too seriously — take God seriously. (Micah 6:8)

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Humanity will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my God! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)

To solve this challenge, we as a people of faith need to start practicing what we say we believe. We need to get to the root of what causes homelessness and do as scripture teaches us. These folks are not numbers or statistics… they are God’s children, and we will answer for what we do for and with these precious creations of God. So tonight, tomorrow morning and in the days ahead let us set aside the soundbite-friendly distractions of sideshows such as “putting Christ back in Christmas” and instead fight for something that has the potential for lasting impact.

Let’s put Christ back into what it means to be Christian.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Summer School in the Streets of Atlanta

Time for an (almost) summer-school pop quiz: Of the following, which would you say is the most important to the average person on Atlanta’s streets right now?

  1. Substantial deodorant, for both men and women.
  2. Socks, preferably black.
  3. Plastic bags, as many as you can spare.
  4. Basic human dignity.

Answer key: #4, Basic human dignity.

In this exercise, #4 is the “all of the above” answer, because the other three answers are contained in it.

When we hit Atlanta’s streets once a quarter to distribute hygiene kits to the people we encounter there, the expressed needs change, but they’re just spokes on a wheel, the hub of which is basic human dignity. And that hub is the “all of the above” answer every time.

Two Sundays ago we were back out there, with a goal of distributing 500 freshly made hygiene kits. As with every time we’ve done this since 2010, we were exposed to slightly different spokes than the time before. Items 1-3 above are what we heard this time; next time it’ll be slightly different.

But #4 never changes — yet it’s the one need that never really gets expressed out loud. Because exactly how does one ask for basic dignity? For some, it’s by asking for items 1-3 above. So meeting those needs becomes a means for chipping away at the real need, for restoring dignity. Hearing the evolving spoken needs, we obsess over creating the Platonic ideal of The Perfect Hygiene Kit, when in fact the ideal isn’t a kit at all — it’s restoring that dignity.

So we do what we can and let God do the rest. We listen while we’re distributing, and the Gospel tells us that when we do this, we are also listening to Jesus.

But the trick is to really hear. And what I hope we’re all hearing in the midst of this listening is that every single one of our brothers and sisters on this Earth deserves the same basic dignity we’d want for ourselves. Because if that level of listening were actually a global daily human practice, can you imagine the sort of world we might actually live in?

I dare say that world would be one step closer to heaven.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

What the Homeless Will Teach Us This Sunday

This Sunday we will turn our church inside out, head toward downtown Atlanta, and let the people who live on its streets teach us the Gospel. We do it once a quarter, and we call it something along the lines of “hygiene kits ministry” or “homeless ministry”.

But the real ministry is happening in reverse. Every time we’ve done this for the last five years, we get schooled. Some examples:

  1. Peanut butter sandwiches aren’t as big a hit as you might expect
  2. In sandwich-making, keep condiments separate
  3. Soft fruits are friendlier for folks who have dental challenges
  4. Food insecurity isn’t as big a challenge as you might think
  5. The Word isn’t that hard to locate, but an actual bible is a bit clunky to lug around
  6. Personal hygiene, a basic dignity we take for granted, is a real challenge on the streets
  7. Clean washcloths or socks are rare luxuries
  8. Female hygiene is expensive and overlooked
  9. Dark clothing is better at concealing the grime of the streets

In other words: Open your eyes and ears, close your mouth, check your ego, and listen to the real needs. Often they’re connected to basic personal dignity and a kind of pragmatism we almost can’t relate to anymore.

The Gospel tells us that when we do that, we’re in the presence of none other than Jesus. It’s a real blessing, and it certainly feels that way, every time. So, what if the pure gratitude that gets expressed toward us is bigger than just giver-and-receiver? What if it’s God’s gratitude that we’re back and listening again for the real ways we can be our brother’s keeper? And what if the things the homeless tell us this Sunday are, for us, the spiritual equivalent of whatever the father whispers into the prodigal son’s ear when they’re first reunited?

In other words: Even though we are commanded to do it more often, at least once a quarter we truly get out of our own heads, change our focus, and come back home.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

The Real Things Christianity Should Be Attacking

Maybe it’s a good thing the Georgia General Assembly only meets for about one-quarter of the year. Because when the legislative session is over, at least we know we can take a decent break from such political tomfoolery as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, whose poster children ended up being the self-righteous bakers and pizza makers of middle America.

People like that are grist for a political mill that knows it can serve up the bread-and-circus distraction of RFRA-type issues and ignite their base while ignoring society’s genuine ills. They play on the old chestnut that Christianity is under attack. Maybe they don’t have Google, but I struggle to understand how 83 percent of Americans can be under attack unless it’s coming from space. (And ironically, queer folks could enlighten the RFRA crowd on what it’s like to live in environments where Christianity is actually under attack.)

With the vast majority of Americans self-reporting as followers of Jesus, the only reason I can think that we haven’t made a real impact on our society in the ways that matter is that we’re still too busy throwing stones at Mary Magdalene. That’s sad. But it’s never too late to repent (i.e., change directions).

So here’s the igniting and ignoring I plan to do: I’m calling on everyone who can hear me to help us make a difference yet again on May 31st, when we’ll be distributing hygiene kits to people on the streets of Atlanta. I invite you to ignite your passion to make a difference and ignore the meaningless distractions thrown in our collective way; they’re the devil’s handiwork.

Yep, I said it: Those RFRA-type distractions from God’s true calling for us are absolutely the devil’s handiwork. They’re what prompt some people to offer a stone out of anger instead of a loaf of bread out of love. And the difference between the two acts is simply free will.

Knowing that, what can you ignite — and what will you ignore?

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Meeting a Need: The Homeless Don’t Need Bibles

I’ll never forget the man who poured water all over my carefully orchestrated homeless ministry in Little Five Points. We had collected bibles and made sack lunches and were distributing them in Findley Plaza. Not that we were evangelizing — we just knew that there are people on the streets who take comfort in the bible.

But that doesn’t mean homeless people like to haul around books — even the good book. Because like any book, a bible will eventually get wet, it’s extra weight, etc. As much as someone may want to read the bible, the homeless don’t need extra ballast in their day.

So we stopped collecting bibles and started listening. And what we heard was that there are needs that go largely unmet by people like us who show up with bibles and food: A way to wash hands. Feminine hygiene. Socks. Not that food isn’t important, but it’s not the only need.

Two weekends from now we’ll be back in the streets with hundreds of hygiene kits, still listening. Four years after starting this, we’re still learning. It’s all about meeting a need.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

This Ex-Homeless Man Will Challenge Everything You Think You Know about the Homeless

When the “Questing Parson” and I were sharing the same Church Building, at his invite of course; one day a man with long flowing thin hair, a full beard, glasses and a cane showed up and took up residence in the church breeze way.

There was nothing unusual about this as Pastor Guy had always let the neighborhood’s homeless find shelter and safety on the grounds of the church.

However, this particular man was sent I believe by God to remind us to be about doing justice, being merciful and walking humble with God.

Chuck showed up at the church after having 2 strokes, 2 heart attacks and triple by-pass surgery. The place he had last lived was also his place of employment and when he was hospitalized the owner of business had no more use for him and let him go, effectively putting him on the streets of Atlanta.

You could not have met a nicer guy. He spent his days picking up around the church and at night keeping an eye on the church property keeping it safe from break-ins and vandals.

After Pastor Guy introduced him to me, he got interested in our ministry because while he was straight he was more then helpful to a couple of gay friends in the Navy to “help them along with their sexual experiences.” The way he had it figured folks in main-line churches just wouldn’t understand him being that helpful, so our church seemed like a good fit.

As time went on, we found out that Chuck had been in the Navy and was for a period of time part of the Viet Nam conflict. Now, I must tell you that experience, coupled with years of heavy drinking (he hasn’t had a drink now for about 5 years) and his strokes had not left him in good shape physically or mentally. He had been robbed of his ability to take care of himself fully and his mental capacity was not the best. He had many stories in his head, many experiences with people in the political arena and other famous folks that just didn’t connect with reality, if you know what I mean…yet by the grace of God he had managed to survive.

For a man who had a damaged heart physically, his spiritual heart was strong and focused. He was always the first to meet new folks at church and make them feel welcome. He was the first to read scripture during service and was just more then happy to help serve communion each week.

From his “breeze way” sleeping quarters he directed new folks who showed up at the church on the “how-to’s” of keeping their area neat, tidy and picked up. He enforced a “no alcohol” policy on church property, using his cane if needed to make the point.

If he had a sandwich to eat and someone showed up hungry then half was theirs…same was true of anything he had including his money, what little he got from doing minor chores, finding loose change or the generosity of strangers.

When the church had a potluck, he would gather the left over food and give it out to anyone who was hungry and many times without them asking…they would show up at the church and the first thing he did was give them something to eat.

Well everything was moving along fine, but then the “Questing Parson” decided to retire and was replace by a pastor from the suburbs who was very nervous around homeless folks and homosexuals, Chuck’s time of staying at the church was quickly coming to an end.

Now, I have lived long enough to know that even if people’s intentions are not the best, God can still work miracles through the crap.

Long story short, our church cut a deal with a local Hotel to let Chuck stay with them. Between, our church, the church of the new pastor and individual donations we managed to pay the weekly bill of $145.00. Now of course this was not a permanent solution and to be honest the new pastor just wanted to be done with this.

After all the church property was infected with LGBT people and they had to be removed before the church could fully recover from it’s lost ways of the last 7 or 8 years. But that is another blog….

Well, when the new pastor found out Chuck had been in the Navy and in Viet Nam, pressure was brought to bear on the VA on “why were they not taking care of their own”?

The new pastor made countless phone calls, wrote several letters and filled out volumes of paper work. God’s hand was in this as Chuck was granted a VA pension of just under $900.00 a month. As I said God works despite why people are doing the things they are doing.

Anyway, back at the Hotel, Chuck fit right in…chatting with the other residents, handing out his food supply and keeping the night watch man company in the wee hours of the morning. He met several new people and told them about the Church having services in the park and brought them to church. He kept me busy with folks he had met and needed help.

The location of the Hotel is exactly 3 miles from where we are worshipping in the park and Chuck walks the full 3 miles every Sunday, rain or shine, in the heat or in the cold, or good air days or bad. Many of us have offered to pick him for Church but he refuses by stating, “I’m a nice guy, I can get to church on my own”. Recently, he at least let’s us give him a ride home on Sunday’s.

The first thing Chuck did when he got his pension was to ask me what a tithe was. I explained and he directed me to take $80.00 per month and give it to the church as his tithe and offering. I was speechless…Chuck’s room rent was $628.33 per month which really left him about $200.00 a month to get food and other essentials.

At one point I had to ask him to give me his ATM card because every time someone needed $10.00, $15.00 or $20.00 he would give it to them no questions asked and never know if they were going to give it back.

He spends his days chatting and visiting and if a person has some need he tries to meet it and if he can’t he calls the church to let us know someone needs help. He constantly asks about the prayer needs of people and if they have been answered and has made some pretty outstanding offers of support when those prayers have not be answered in Chuck’s time frame.

He has stories, oh my God does he have stories and if you give him the chance he will tell you ever one of them sometimes twice just for good measure.

This is a man who has paid to fix people’s cars, paid their utilities bills, bought their groceries and even offered to pay their mortgages so they wouldn’t be homeless.

When I explain to Chuck he does not have enough money to do these things and still keep a roof over his head and eat, I get Chuck’s finger pointing in my face and his standard remark; “I’m a nice guy, I have lived on the streets before, I can do it again and survive, but this person can’t and shouldn’t cause God knows it’s not right for them!”

There is a TV commercial that plays late at night, stating that Jesus the Christ has in fact returned and is living among us. They give you a number to call if you want to find who and where He is.

I don’t need to call the number, because I have seen the living Spirit of the Christ up close and personal and he reminds all who will listen, “Hey I’m a nice guy!”

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.