I don’t know about you, but my understanding of how to respond to people who live on the streets, those who are begging, and taking showers in public spaces has for a long time been something along these lines: “Never give them money because then you just enable them to stay on the streets for longer and never get to the point of sorting out their lives” or “Never give them money, because they do not know how to spend money and will probably just buy drugs”. I have even heard and read advice like, “If they are trying to be a car guard or wash your car, do not give them money, this will just reinforce their presence and the fact that they are making a nuisance of themselves.”
Moving into and living in the city centre translates to daily contact with some of the almost 4000 homeless people making a living on the streets of Durban.* We stand in the same queues, share parks, pavements and public spaces and sit next to each other in church.
I can remember struggling when we first moved here with debilitating guilt about what we had the choice of eating every day and what we had access to in comparison with the people I encountered on the streets. But I knew I needed to act from a place of conviction and not guilt. Love, not shame or fear.
I decided to make a point of, at the very least, treating people living on the streets or in shelters as human beings. You would think that this would have been obvious (being a Christian for so many years and all), but how easy it is to justify our behaviour when we treat people as a nuisance, turn the other way, or ignore them when they call out to us. So, I decided, instead of turning the other way or allowing myself to get irritated, I will make eye contact, I will introduce myself and I will ask their names. I will touch them when appropriate, I will stand still and pay attention to what they are sharing with me. I will listen to their story and ask questions. I will place myself in their shoes. I will be honest in my response. This is what I have tried to do ever since. Sometimes I have done well and other times I have failed miserably.
Living on the streets, can be horrendously dehumanising.** Human beings are reduced to “threats”, “nuisances” or “commodities”. Relating to others can be reduced to defending, hustling, begging or fighting. The amazing thing is that when you treat people like human beings you awaken their humanity. You affirm their dignity. When you relate to “homeless” people in genuinely human ways, you discover that they are not simply a homogenous “horde”, but that they are Danielle, Barry, Anesh, Angie and Anele, diverse individuals, with life stories and emotions. You come to see a person and not simply a problem.
But I want to take this notion one step further:
A while ago, I heard Pete Rollins (in an interview with Rob Bell***) share this eye-opening remark:
“We put the “problems” in our society behind walls, or we cut them off. We think if we only get rid of certain people everything will be fine…We think if we go to the homeless, “I am good news to the homeless”, but what if they’re “good news” to us? Because they tell us that there is a problem in our social body that we are not looking at. So if we really want to be “converted” as a society, we have to go to the most oppressed people in our community, let them speak to us as prophets, showing us the problems that exist within our community so that we can be converted, transformed and society can improve.”
I believe that this is not only true on a societal level, but also an individual, personal level. In other words, when I treat a person living in the streets or in a shelter with dignity – as a human being – not only do I awaken our common humanity, but this presents me with the opportunity to regain my own humanity. The interaction humanises me too. We so often pride ourselves in “giving” to the poor or “reaching out” to the homeless (or any marginalised group for that matter), that we may be blind to the reality we, in fact, need their presence in our lives to help us relearn what it means to be human.
Those who have forgotten the poor, disabled and marginalised in their city, have forgotten what it means to be human.
In the face of a person who lives on the streets of our city, I am confronted with my own hidden greed, my own ignorance, the ways in which I have been justifying my feelings of superiority. I am confronted with the ways in which I have accepted being less of a human being and the ways in which I am dehumanising others around me – whether directly, by the way in which I relate to them, or indirectly, through my support of societal systems that are unjust or corrupt.
And in the face of Barry, Angie, Anesh, Anele, Danielle, I see God revealing my own hidden idolatries and calling me to be human again.
*My friend Robyn sent me the final report regarding a very helpful study on homelessness that was conducted in Durban in February this year (Ikhaya Lami: Homelessness in Durban; Submitted to Safer Cities Unit, eThekwini Municipality, Submitted by: Human and Social Development Programme, HSRC, June 2016, Revised October 2016). The study debunked so many stereotypes and assumptions that we may have about people who live on the streets and shelters in our city. Inbox me and I will send it to you.
**“ From the study mentioned above: “…the participants’ accounts were replete with references to the desire of being treated like “human beings”. Seltser and Miller (1993, p. 93) assert “being homeless threatens the essential dignity of human beings, undermining or often destroying their ability to be seen, and to see themselves as worthwhile persons”. This disrespect and lack of dignity could very well be one of the key factors that contributed to the high rates of distress reported above. Amongst people who are homeless, Miller & Keys (2001) found that being treated with dignity contributed to an increase in self-worth and self-sufficiency and motivated their participants to exit homelessness. On the other hand, treatment without dignity was associated with symptoms of depression and feelings of anger and worthlessness.”
***This interview is part of a series of 4 podcasts (or Robcasts) that I highly recommend to anyone who is open to ask questions about who God is and how we think and talk about God