The other night I was asked to rein in my bleeding heart… Although this appellation has always been used as an insult, for lo these many years, in this particular case it was a comment made by someone whom I admire and who runs about with one of the ‘bleedingest’ hearts I have ever had the grace to know or to be around, so I took the matter very seriously. For the first time since we opened our doors last year, our small shelter was going to have to send back two who had come to sleep in one of our improvised cots, who had walked to us, who were cold and hungry and tired. I was considering bringing them home with me, because it is something I had done from time to time, both by myself and with my partner and companion, husband and lover, before he made his transition. They had signed up the night before, and we had promised them a place if they arrived by 8:30 p.m. But by 7:00 p.m. we were full… 20 had come in, signed up, taken a sheet and blanket.
We are a small, unfunded shelter, the only one that lets in single men and women without children, and we only have room for 20 at the inn… As I served dinner that night (I had been lucky enough to have found frozen chicken at the Grocery Outlet on B Street at an unbelievable price of 50 cents a pound, and had brought three very large chickens, which I had roasted, to share with our guests, to go along with the wonderful soup brought by one of our volunteers. Every night someone has brought soup to share, and on New Year’s Eve we also had a number of pies and persimmon bread and all manner of home-baked goodies, plus smiles and hugs and conversation, as necessary to those who are cold and hungry and tired as food and a place to sleep and a blanket…) Anyway, as I served dinner that night I thought of the endless attack on homelessness and poverty by those who make the laws in our midst, who are joining a state and national effort to ‘get rid of’ the blight of homelessness by enacting ever more ridiculous laws against being homeless and being poor. For it is now illegal to feed the homeless in Hayward, illegal to ‘camp out’ in publicly owned areas, illegal to sleep in your car, ANYWHERE in Hayward. I found out about the sleeping in cars when I fell asleep, right in front of my office, on my way in, and was rousted by an officer who bellowed that I was breaking the law…
Years ago when I was learning to drive, I remember being told that if you became tired while driving, you should pull over for a quick nap rather than proceed to drive and perhaps kill someone while nodding off on the road… but in Hayward, if you do that, you are subject to a penalty to be imposed because of this most ridiculous enactment… So going back to my bleeding heart, a condition from which I suffer, along with our volunteers, parish members, and assorted folk, I decided to take back the two who had come and put them up, with blankets and sheets, at my own humble abode, and when I went back to do breakfast the next morning at 6 a.m., I was told that after I had left we had had to deny admittance to 7 others who had walked to us in that cold night for shelter. We really do not have the room or the money for more than 20, but my friend and mentor had a trembling voice as she told of having to say no, having to send someone back into that cold, at 11 o’clock at night. I know that the earliest two were given blankets and allowed to sit on a chair outside the sanctuary with the beds, because they had walked a long time in that very cold night to get to us.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva has condemned the criminalization of homelessness in the United States as “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” that violates international human rights treaty obligations. But we in the United States, and specifically in Hayward, continue to handle the problem by punishing its victims. One of the excuses given is that ‘other cities’ are doing it, as though participating in wrong conduct is excused because ‘everyone else is doing it.’ Well, one of those bleeding hearts of old, Helen Keller, wrote at another time: I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
but still I can do something.
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.
We had to turn away seven people who came to us, cold and hungry and tired, because we had no room at the inn. Many of those whom we house nightly (about a third at times) during very inclement weather are veterans, and this follows a national trend, as more than 62,000 of the homeless in this country are veterans. Veterans are a specific demographic when it comes to homelessness, because they are plagued by disabilities from their experience on the battlefield, including physical injuries and post-traumatic stress and depression. Although we have put them in peril, when they return we relegate them to the dump heap, along with so many of the cast-off things with which we pollute our planet.
The sudden illness in the title? I brought back multiple loads of laundry, the 20 sheets and 20 blankets for the ones we were able to house, and while I was doing them I kept napping, and I couldn’t breathe, and I assumed I was experiencing allergies as I often do, but this morning at 5 I woke up with mucus and a sore throat and a bad cough. Had I been turned away at the inn, had I slept outside last night, I might not be able to write these words. For whatever it is that is ailing me, a sudden case of flu or something else, I slept well-covered in a proper bed with blankets and heat. But everyday people who have no heat or blankets or bed find themselves beset by illness, and may not wake up.
I am committing, as one more human being who is only one, in the words of Helen Keller, but “still I am one,” to do whatever it takes to end homelessness in Hayward. Won’t you join me?
The Torah: “Tzedakah,” or “righteousness” — doing the right thing.
“Tzedek, tzedek you shall pursue” — justice justice you shall pursue (Deut. 16:20). Reach out to others. Do what you can to help. Tikkun Olam: repairing the world.
Isaiah 58:7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Matthew 25:35: For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’…
Hinduism, via Gandhi: Poverty is the worst form of violence.
Islam: the Prophet Mohammad Sallalalahu Alayhi wa Sallam is reported to have said, “He is not a Muslim who goes to bed satiated while his neighbor goes hungry”.
Baha’i: You must turn attention more earnestly to the betterment of the conditions of the poor. Do not be satisfied until each one with whom you are concerned is to you as a member of your family. Regard each one either as a father, or as a brother, or as a sister, or as a mother, or as a child. If you can attain to this, your difficulties will vanish, you will know what to do. This is the teaching of Bahá’u’lláh.