Let’s Put Christ Back in ‘Christian’

Atlanta's homeless

As a longtime transgender ally, this time of year hits a bit differently for me than it does for most. Due to the timing of Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is always a few days before Thanksgiving, I inevitably go into Advent thinking a lot about the lack of progress in our society on the fundamental challenges faced by transgender people.

I realize this is likely to date me, because I’m probably coming across as tone-deaf to all the forward progress we’ve made on things such as preferred pronouns and a slightly lessened emphasis on traditional binary notions of gender.

But as the pastor of an LGBTQ+ affirming urban church with a longstanding ministry to the homeless, the intersectionality that jumps out to me in sharp relief is the one between society’s marginalization of transgender people and of the homeless.

The astute among us are likely to recognize that many transgender people flirt with homelessness, and are even likely to recognize why: In a society where your housing is tied to your economic worth, an economy that makes very few seats on the bus for transgender workers is likely to see a lot of transgender homelessness.

Years ago it used to set my teeth on edge listening to the president of one of our fancier (gentrified) neighborhood associations speak of “the transgender prostitutes” walking the streets of her neighborhood; I knew that in her mind she not only couldn’t separate those two concepts, but she also couldn’t appreciate the forces that brought them together.

But that’s not all: In my fair city’s virtual map of marginalizations, there are a couple more nearby intersections worth pointing out: The fact that state-sanctioned identification (a key that unlocks doors to employment and other societal goods) is held out as a privilege, not a right — and the fact that the overwhelming majority of LGBTQ+ homeless youth are people of color.

In reflecting on all these things, as I often do this time of year, I realized that I’d actually written about them before — four years ago, to be exact. And in re-reading what I’d written, I had the sinking realization that the only thing that had changed about this tapestry of marginalization were the headlines.

Here are two from just one news cycle:

An underage white kid could kill two people and wound another and not have even a modicum of legal responsibility laid at his feet.

A lawyer stood in open court and bemoaned the presence of black pastors supporting the family of an unarmed young black man who was gunned down in broad daylight under the “white privilege” excuse of a citizen’s arrest!

I think people are tired of seeing evidence all around them that their fellow humans continue to act in such a short-sighted and self-absorbed fashion when confronted with situations, where our instruction from God is, 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.

We are 4 years passed the closing of the shelter and the building still sits empty and the parking lots around are continuing to be dump sites for all kinds of crap.

The sad truth is, there was no plan 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. Four years later, there is still no plan. In fact instead of meeting the “needs” of it’s citizens, the counties and cities continue to offer patchwork “fixes” that keep a politician in office,

Did I mention that every other shelter in town is already full? Did I mention that as fast as a tent city pops up under an underpass it is quickly cleared out…talk about the city burying its head in the sand!

Why are there tent cities popping up all over the place? Because it is safer there than to go to a shelter and getting your possessions stolen or being  beaten up and abused.

This does not deal with another horrific issue:  if a mom is homeless and her sons are twelve years old or older, they will be separated from one another to acquire shelter – and you thought it was bad on the border; welcome to Atlanta Metro.

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 offer to open emergency shelters when it gets into the 30’s.

Yup. Just for your information, hypothermia begins with extended outside exposure of 50 degrees, and the lower the temperature, the faster it occurs. I umpire softball games that are in the 40’s and for those 2 hours I am heavily layered! Are you cold yet?

Did I mention there is not one, not one emergency cold shelter in DeKalb County?

The arrogance of the city and the county continues with a list of 10 organizations that they recommend 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 out the city’s and county’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 and a lack of any plans to seriously address the issue of being homeless.

Here’s why:

  • Most of these organizations close by 5pm. There are a couple that are open until 8:45pm and one that is open 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 make 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.
  • COVID-19 protocols have made things extremely difficult.

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 county and city blithely refer 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?

For those of you who are waiting for the LGBTQI part of this…Too many young people coming out find themselves on the streets, homeless.  Why? “Because they are less than” as told to us by conservative Christian theology.

From November 2020 to November 2021, 54 Trans people were murdered, many of them homeless or on the edge of being homeless. Why? “Because they are less than” as told to us by conservative Christian theology.

And I’m so not done here.

It might not be illegal to be gay or Transgender, but they become criminals because of 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 – 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?

In addition, 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 is 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 guilty of is generally some sort of 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.

I’ve been saying for the better part of 20 years, if we are going to solve these challenges, then we need to stop trying to fix them and simply meet the need. Jesus never once offed to fix anything, but rather simply met the need as presented.

To meet the need three things, must happen at one time: Full access to drug rehabilitation, full access to good mental health care, and employers offering to pay a livable wage. A fourth thing probably needs to happen in this ridiculous economy: “rent controls”. Don’t want rent controls? Then offer livable rents.

I suppose there is another full essay on what the difference is between “fixing” someone and “meeting the need” of someone. However, it must suffice for now to do what follows that can only happen from the standpoint of meeting the need.

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 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 our scripture teaches us.

These folk are not numbers or statistics or political fixes to gather votes. 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.

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