If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter
Chapter One, "Seeing and Being Seen", begins with a discussion on sight and how our language, and the language of the bible, uses this as a way to understand the world.
Throughout Scripture, imagery of eyes, sight, and blindness is used to denote more than literal “seeing.” It often signifies someone’s ability to perceive God’s truth, purpose, or values. (p. 27)
The author then invites readers to "see" the issue of homelessness differently and continues on to detail the small steps in which he began to view things differently.
Nye describes his younger ministry time serving in one of the larger churches in his denomination. It's here that he begins to think about opportunities and eventually considers Penn Avenue Church, locally known as "the homeless church". More specifically, a ministry in the church called OKC Compassion.
Having had a dream about visiting Penn Avenue Church, he realizes this dream, though completely wrong in details, intrigued him enough to visit two days later. His "view" of the matter shifted from dismissal to reluctance. What he discovers seems to bother him more than what he expected: normalcy. The church, the members, the unhoused... were all normal.
He goes on to volunteer and work at this church and in his time there he realizes that the relationships and community these services allowed were just as important as the services rendered.
This has been something of an experience for myself. When our kids were younger, we decided to make a change and switch churches. The church we ended up at is also locally known as "the homeless church" in many circles. It was small and from all appearances innocuous.
Our family suffers from more than a few dietary restrictions, which made it difficult to participate in meals with our new church, but we would attend anyways. Just join a table and enter into discussions. We began, slowly, to see that the unhoused and the housed, were both pretty normal and a little odd all at once.
One change that we see in ourselves today, and in our kids as they've gotten older, is a sort of relaxed attitude about the behaviors some unhoused exhibit that "normal" people would considered socially awkward or downright disturbing. We've come to see, in time, that these behaviors, such as talking to themselves, voicing odd spiritual or conspiratorial ideas, and poor inter-relational etiquette, are no more disturbing or odd than many of a number of cultural quirks we've accepted long ago.
In short, our tolerance for odd behavior increased over time. Looking back now, it's almost funny how skittish people can get around someone who doesn't fit their idea of normal.
Returning to the book, Nye's progression in how he saw the world continues to unfold in his going about of just spending time with the community he chose to serve:
So much holy and transformative work happens in the innocuous moments when people are simply together, sharing an experience, participating in an activity, and being humans in community. (p. 31)
Even after all of this, he goes on to point out how much he still didn't "see" or consider when it came to homelessness. A deficiency he'll address as the book goes on.
He ends his discussion on the topic of beginning to see differently with this:
“The only thing more profound than feeding the homeless is eating with them.” (p. 32)
Nye goes on to detail how his academic education was also beginning to change the lenses in which he saw the bible, and through it the world.
His study of the minor prophets, the gospel of Luke and its focus on the beatitudes of the "poor", and the book of James with its renunciation of the rich and calling toward a more holistic approach to caring for the poor, all contributed to his ongoing work with those experience homelessness.
At Fuller Theological Seminary, Nye was introduced to what liberation theologians called "God's preferential treatment for the poor". The works of Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonard Boff, and James Cone, igniting in him a sense of serving the poor "not only as a Christian thing to do, but the very essence of who God is".
Later, graduating from college and getting married, Nye begins to set his attention toward serving in Los Angeles. It's in this early period of his mission that he highlights one of the great dangers of serving others:
And as much as I can attest to the sense of calling, direction, and affirmation from God in choosing homeless services, I must also confess saviorism and a hero complex that hung over my early days of working at The Center. (p. 33)
The danger of this mindset is that it is inherently othering and hierarchical. (p. 34)
The power dynamic at play when helping others is something that which I think all can relate.
Nye's discussion on this reminded me of Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, where he warns against the dangers of external "disciplines" (like helping the unhoused), and how the very fact that this is something others can see makes it rife for being abused and unhealthy.
At best, any external thing we do can, and often times will, be abused by ourselves in gaining favor and respect. Or puffing us up. And at worst, can lead to a "messiah complex" where we sit in judgement of others, that they don't do more themselves while also patronizing and pitying those we are supposed to be "helping".
In this way, I lovingly caution anyone approaching this work of ending homelessness, or any justice issue, to undergo serious self-examination for these biases, privileges, and complexes that can get in the way of lifting up and centering those without power. (pp. 34-35)
In the passage of Matthew 25:37-45, we find Jesus speaking about "the least of these". Commonly known as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, here Jesus turns the narrative upside down. We are told, that those things we've done for the "least of these" we have in fact, done for Jesus.
Nye goes on to draw out what it means that Christ is inexplicably linked with the "least of these". Furthermore, he extrapolates that if the unhoused are in fact Christ among us, our attitude should be one of learning and relating. Not of pity or self-interested helping. It should also be the floor of our calling, not the ceiling.
When we encounter Christ in the face of the poor, we shouldn’t so much seek to transform them, but to be transformed ourselves. (p. 37)
By taking this passage seriously, and with some unorthodoxy, Nye proposes that this will have a disrupting effect on our usual responses. It undermines both the "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps" conservative positions AND it finds wanting the typical liberal efforts of programs that spend billions but are often inaccessible and/or misdirected.
His point, as I understand it, is that both approaches fail to approach the unhoused relationally and with care toward their personhood.
We should come to recognize the overall patterns and dynamics that put (and keep) people in the position of homelessness even as we focus on the unique stories and personhood of the individuals we meet. Christ is both each and every one of them. (p. 38)
One of the most difficult parts of this chapter is about a heroin addict named Nicholas. The process of getting clean from heroin can be incredibly painful. So much so, that many continue to use just to avoid the pain of going clean.
Nye recounts the day when Nicholas finally decides he wants to get clean and asks him for help. A few phone calls later, Nye is able to secure a bed for detox but things take a decidedly sad turn when Nicholas discovers that the clinic is in Skid Row. Nicholas declines and goes on his way.
Going to rehab in Skid Row is like going to a dentist in the middle of a candy store. You might do everything you went there to do, but the moment you walk out you’re right in the middle of your worst nightmare. (p. 39)
An interesting point here made by the author, is that many of the unhoused begin their journey in the community that they used to be housed in. Things get difficult however when communities reject clinics and resources to help the unhoused population and instead force these services outside of the area. Addicts and unhoused, unwilling to be shipped away from their area, then get labeled as "service resistant".
Nicholas’s story is not unique—the myth of service resistance distorts the way we see homelessness as a culture. I once listened to police officers describe a whole encampment as service resistant because they had pulled up in a squad car and offered everyone there shelter beds and were told no—never mind that the shelter they were offering was seventeen miles away in an entirely different community. Unhoused people depend on patterns of knowing where to get food, clothing, showers, and other resources within walking distance, and they were being offered an overnight bed somewhere they had never been. This claim of service resistance also ignores the poor reputations of many shelters, and the lack of trust that the unhoused community has with those offering it—the police. Would you accept an undesired offer from the same people who wrote you multiple tickets in the past week for living on the sidewalk? (pp. 39-40)
This interaction resonates with me lately. We've recently had two elected officials drop by an encampment and offer the unhoused there to bring them and their belongings to a shelter. The people turned down the offer. These officials then got verbal confirmation that the people there wanted to continue to do drugs.
I'm not sure what this anecdote from these officials is meant to relay. From the pictures they posted, the occupants looked to have a lot of stuff. I doubt they could have taken that with them to the shelter. So they would be forced to leave at least some of their belongings behind. Also, I doubt that the shelter could house them long term. So what's the plan beyond just moving them? This seems like a shortsighted offer to begin with.
I also can't help but feel that the drug question is something of a gotcha. Sort of a, "Look everyone! They just want to do drugs and be homeless. They don't deserve anything better because they don't want it!"
Did these officials ask why they want to do drugs? Or how they got into drugs in the first place? Or what their background was? Have they ever experienced abuse? Or trauma? Have they tried quitting before? If so, why did they fail? What services worked for them and which did not? Do they have a reason not to trust authorities?
I'm not surprised that just walking into an encampment, asking to take them away to a shelter and then if they wanted to continue doing drugs wasn't an effective strategy for helping these people. There's no relationship there. No history. No understanding. It's patronizing.
Returning to the book, Nye has this to say about "service resistant":
In all my years of working in homeless services, having met thousands of individuals experiencing homelessness, I have never once met a truly service-resistant person. I have met people who did not want to talk to me, who cursed me out, who told me to go to hell and any number of other things when I have offered them particular services at particular times. But never once have I formed a relationship with someone whose true, authentic desire was to live on the streets and subsist on charity and handouts. When I’ve met those knee-jerk responses that many take as a final answer, I always try to dig deeper: What are they truly saying no to? (pp. 40-41)
"What are they truly saying no to?" is a question I'm going to be giving more consideration to as I converse with those who perhaps have been deemed "service resistant".
Nye goes on to discuss what things may actually look like when services are turned down by a person and why. It might not be for the reasons we assume. In fact, "service resistant" may be better attributed to those who are rendering services, not the unhoused.
The remainder of the chapter focuses on John 9, regarding the "man born blind from birth" and the various tensions at play in exactly why this person was born blind.
Taking his lesson from Jesus, Nye makes the argument that, like Jesus, we should not consider why the man was born blind, either from the blind man's sin or that of his family. We should, like Jesus, simply set out to heal what we can, less concerned about a person's past, and more concerned about their current state.
The chapter concludes with a story about Michael, a man in desperate need of glasses and the experience Nye had taking him to his appointment. The connectedness. The actual relationship. Not just meeting another person's need, but truly seeing them as just that, a person, not a project. These experiences are one of many that set the author on a path of seeing the world differently.