In the past few months, multiple reports revealed attempts to prevent homeless persons from sleeping in certain areas, including the exterior windowsill of a supermarket and space under an awning near a luxury housing facility. In particular, these include various types of spikes, from pyramids to punji sticks, all with the expressed intent to prevent people from taking up residence, sleeping, or even resting in public areas that offer protection from the elements. This article includes a number of pictures to give you an idea of what these areas and spikes look like.
In at least one instance, pubic outcry combined with civil disobedience led to the removal of such measures. Even so, this practice of further endangering people already suffering at the margins of society seems to be growing.
At about this point in the discussion, if not much earlier, some people bring up the topics of private property and ownership. The argument, as it has been presented to me, is quite simple. Someone can do whatever they want with private property (like a supermarket or a condo complex), regardless of detrimental consequences to others, simply because it is privately held. Now, of course this is a uniquely American conception of privacy and property. Consider, for instance, the commonality of Everyman's Rights across Europe. But even so, this belief in the ultimate privacy of property is frequently held. Whether that is right or wrong, it is a current political reality with which we must deal.
But that's really not the point of this discussion, either, because you'll also notice in the first article mentioned that many public spaces, including park benches and the undersides of bridges, also include these spikes bent on preventing stability in the lives of homeless persons. In the name of public safety, we have prevented public use of public property to meed a very public need of shelter from the elements, of rest for the weary.
Part of the problem at hand is that we live in a culture of fear. Cable news, from MSNBC to FoxNews and everywhere in between all convince us that we ought fear those we do not know, or those who are unlike us in some way. Even more so, they strike in us the fear of not having enough, that scarcity is akin to some sort of evil.
With all this in the backs of our minds, when we see people without homes struggling to find some sort of safety or refuge on the street, we respond in fear. Rather than realize we actually operate out of an embarrassment of wealth - "Think of all the open public space that might serve to meet the needs of our society!"- we respond out of a deep seated and ill founded fear. We decide that since we own something, whether privately or as a majority of the public, we then decide that others cannot use that property for any purpose, however actually harmless it may be.
Perhaps the worst part is that we deny ownership of something else, namely that the structure of our society helps to create problems like poverty and homelessness. We grasp with white knuckles on to our land and objects, but refuse to even touch the problems that our fear and greed create.
So what does this all mean?
It means that there is a better way. It means that we need to do better. It means that perhaps the best use of our window sills and underpasses is to offer a shelter to someone who cannot otherwise afford one. It means that our fortunate circumstances ought to become a platform for sharing rather than one of societal divisions. It means that rather than spikes, we ought to offer weather resistant pillows. It means that we put the issue of ownership below the issue of human thriving. It means that, above all else, we recognize the image of God in others, and work to offer hospitality to the person, and to the God in whose image they are made.