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Homelessness is time out of mind

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

It was 2016, the year Richard Gere engaged with the invisibility of homelessness. For him, it was time out of mind. For the homeless ones, it remains enigmatic, a lengthy duration of time, longer than is readily remembered. It is also deeply embedded in a memory bank which gains interest with each passing moment. Homelessness is not a condition; nor is it a learned lifestyle. It is not so much a choice as an accepted reality. It is not desirable or desired yet it persists. Homelessness is truly time out of mind as much as it is a mind out of time.

As noted in an online account, “Oren Moverman’s ‘Time out of Mind,’ about a homeless and probably mentally ill man trying to survive in New York City, does not feel like a typical American independent drama made in this century. It’s set in harsh reality and shot with a simplicity and directness that demands the viewer’s full attention. And it immediately draws the viewer in through familiarity [with Richard Gere] but then increasingly demands that we engage with the character [George] on his own terms, and forget whatever we think we know about the actor.” 

One critic noted “people like George are, for all intents, invisible, a notion that becomes achingly clear as we see people pass him, or look past him, while going about their lives … It is a portrait of loneliness … It’s the sort of scene that happens all the time in cities (though more often the request is, ‘Can you spare a quarter?’) without anyone thinking about the sorrow that underlies it, and the inequity it reveals.”

Therein lies the heartlessness of homelessness. No one is thinking about the sorrow that underlies it and the inequity it reveals. No one is thinking how many people, persons like you and me, are living monuments to the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song. They are “walking through the summer nights. Jukebox playing low. Yesterday everything was going too fast. Today, it’s moving too slow. I got no place left to turn. I got nothing left to burn. The light in this place is so bad. Making me sick in the head. All the laughter is just making me sad. There are things I could say but I don’t. I know the mercy of God must be near. I’ve been riding the midnight train. Got ice water in my veins.”  

And nobody is listening or seeing or caring or believing. No one is touching or feeling or hoping or praying or giving or receiving. Homelessness truly is time out of mind as well as it is a mind out of time.

We opt to avoid those persons whose appearance reminds us of our own vulnerability to circumstances beyond our control. We do not want to see what our eyes tell us can possibly occur to us or those we love. We don’t want to hear the fear-filled voices that evoke our own inner terrors. So, we avert our eyes to the vision of need and deafen our ears to the noise of emptiness. We opt for silent blindness and deliberate unwillingness to hear. We walk away.

Worse yet, we often find — or try to find — reasons to excuse ourselves from contact or communication. We argue without reason and reason without understanding. “There are places where food and clothing are free. They could find a job. They are just beggars or alcoholics or tramps or vagrants. They are lazy and unwilling to work.” 

It’s always “they” and “them.” It’s outsiders and insiders, never “us” and “we.” Quick to send money and goods to folks who suffer the results of natural disasters, we are reluctant to assist those whose disaster we perceive to be their very nature. Both groups are homeless but only one is deemed personally responsible. Only one is accepted as worthy of assistance. Only one is considered to be a victim of circumstances and only one is described as causal for enduring, enslaving circumstances. One is homeless; the other is hopeless.

Do we have ice water in our veins? Are we so wrapped up in the daily doings of life that we have no time or energy, patience or forbearance for God’s ‘little ones’?

The questions frighten me as they challenge me. Answers elude me. Responses awaken me to my personal comfort zones. These are the comforting and comfortable places and people I choose in avoidance of a disturbing homelessness, a sense that I do not own the earth and all that is in it. I am simply a tenant farmer in God’s vineyard and I owe more than I own.

This is not an exaggeration nor is it a picture of impending doom and gloom. There are facts to consider, facts which likely are more dire today than those gleaned from a 2014 report.

Fact 1: More than half a million people are homeless spending the night either in homeless shelters or in some sort of short-term transitional housing. Slightly more than a third are living in cars or under bridges or are in some other way living unsheltered. 

Fact 2: One quarter of homeless people are children. The National Center for Homeless Education reported in September 2014 that local school districts reported there are over 1 million homeless children in public schools. 

Fact 3: More than 57,000 veterans are homeless each night. Sixty percent of them are in shelters, the rest unsheltered. Nearly 5,000 are female. 

Fact 4: More than 90 percent of homeless women are victims of severe physical or sexual abuse. Escaping that abuse is a leading cause of their homelessness. 

Fact 5: Many are homeless because they cannot afford rent. The lack of affordable housing is a primary cause of homelessness. HUD’s budget, slashed by more than 50 percent in recent decades, resulted in the loss of 10,000 units of subsidized low-income housing each and every year.

Fact 6: There are fewer places for poor people to rent than before. One eighth of the nation’s supply of low-income housing has been permanently lost since 2001. As a result, millions of families spend more than half of their monthly income on rent.

Fact 7: One out of every 10 homes with a mortgage has been foreclosed, causing a search for affordable rental property.

Fact 8: There is enough public rental assistance to help about one out of every four extremely low-income households. Those who do not receive help are on multi-year waiting lists. 

Fact 9: Twenty to 25 percent of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness. Half of this population self-medicate, at further risk for addiction and poor physical health. Comprehensive health support and treatment of physical and mental illnesses is less costly than incarceration, shelter and hospital services for the untreated homeless.

Fact 10: Cities are increasingly making homelessness a crime.

The data are disturbing. The reality is alarming. No one is home free. Everyone must hear the cry of the poor. It must be our cry. For we are impoverished people begging for help as we offer it, receiving more than giving— time out of mind.

 

Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.