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Homeless and Heartless : It’s Spiritual Death to Be Nobody in Our Culture

<i> Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker community. </i>

It is like a dance--they circle around and around, eyes fixed on each other. In the space of a blink, a hand slips into a pocket bulging with . . . what? a lighter? a screwdriver? or a buck knife of tempered steel that can cut through an iron bolt?

“Show me your stuff!” Instead, a clenched fist finds a landing place, with the slap of flesh on flesh, just below the eye.

“Where’s my 50 bucks? You asked me for 50 bucks, and like a man I gave it to you. Now I want it back.”

“What 50 bucks? You never gave me 50 bucks.”

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“I gave you 50 bucks, man, and I’ll kill you. I just done 13 years and I don’t care if I go back or not. I am a Crip and I can kill you. . . . “

He is short, thick-necked and muscular and his name is Cartoon. That is his placa, his street name, his gang name. He has been coming to the Catholic Worker soup kitchen since June when he got out of Folsom State Prison. Fortunately he recognizes me, and because he has “respect,” he decides not to kill anyone while he is here on the premises.

At the age of 30 or so, Cartoon has exceeded by 8 to 10 years the life expectancy of the average gang member. I don’t know why he is called Cartoon, but to me it is a deadly accurate name, suggesting one who is not real, a mere sketching of reality, lacking in substance, merely a facsimile of a person.

Increasingly, the homeless population on Skid Row is coming to resemble Cartoon: young, black and angry. The depth of their despair and alienation finds its roots in a negative self-image, developed from a lifetime of being a non-person, a mere cartoon. Without family, community or cultural roots, they are the victims of poverty, institutional racism and social and political disfranchisement. They know intuitively as well as from experience that the doors to full participation in American community life are firmly locked to them.

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They are poor in the economic sense, but what’s more important, they are poor in the spiritual sense as well. They come from broken families, perhaps generations of broken families. If they are not dropouts, then the diplomas that they have received from sub-standard ghetto schools are worthless. Having been deprived of any authentic cultural experience, their values are derived from the sub-text of Western culture: violence and materialism, instant gratification. They are faithful adherents to the religion of consumerism; they fervently believe the constantly repeated media message that salvation comes through consumption.

The values of the streets are the values of mass culture. If you do not have the money to be a consumer, you do not exist. Therefore, as a non-person you can steal, deal, get high or do all three. Reality in such a life consists of a continually stimulated set of expectations, mixed with diminishing possibilities for fulfillment.

We in the Catholic Worker community believe that the problem of homelessness in America goes to the heart of our problems as a culture. And we believe that our country’s culture is rotten because our system is rotten.

We are appalled at the facile pronouncements about the homeless purveyed by a growing cadre of self-proclaimed experts and official administrators who imply that the problem might be solved by funding a new program, passing a new bill or even changing the Administration in Washington.

No, the problem is deeper, darker and more profoundly disturbing than any mere public-policy change could address. It is not that we would ever want to deny the poor funding for any program designed to ease their situation, but the problem goes much further. As the homeless population grows in size and degree of alienation, neither the economy nor the traditional enclave of the marginated, the Skid Row neighborhood, can accommodate them.

The driving force of our culture today seems to be the elimination of all those who do not have a degree in computer science, sell Tupperware or teach aerobics. The once-vigorous economy that offered unskilled people the opportunity to at least hit the beachhead of the mainstream no longer exists.

At the same time, it is these same values that, since the mid-1950s, have systematically eliminated the marginally poor from the mainstream’s landscape. Under the banner of redevelopment, it has become the unquestioned policy to “upgrade” so-called blighted neighborhoods with office buildings, singles bars and trendy shops. In the last three decades Los Angeles has lost 20,000 units of single-room-occupancy housing. Some of this sub-standard housing was replaced with low-cost housing, but even that is too expensive for marginal people.

The only thing standing between a marginalized person and homelessness is sub-standard housing. Less than 10 years ago it was possible to rent a Skid Row hotel room for as little as $50 per month. Today, because of the attrition rate of this housing and the increased demand by the newly marginalized poor, these rooms--complete with rodents, roaches and nonfunctioning bathrooms at the end of the hall--rent for as much as $400 per month.

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The homeless situation is alarming in the extreme. It offers a perverse paradigm of our cultural and economic dysfunction. As the homeless population increases, the new poor in their alienation grow less tolerable, and the culture, caught up in its narcissism, grows less tolerant.

We believe that the situation is hopeless, given the set of public-policy alternatives and the predisposition of the American public. This isn’t to say that we indulge in despair, because our hope doesn’t lie in changing public policy or public opinion. We don’t find anything hopeful in the stop-gap measures of politicians or in the bureaucratized compassion of program administrators. The system cannot be fine-tuned, for it is rotten to the core. Rather, we find hope in the God of life and the power of personal witness through the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless.

It is a scandal that in a nation as rich as ours, the works of mercy remain a necessity. Our acts give daily testimony to the emptiness at the center of our culture. We are not naive; we realize that we will not change the world through simple personal acts of compassion. We do these things not to change the world, but, as the revered Rabbi Abraham Heschel taught, so that the world will not change us. The poor will always be with us. Our calling, as followers of Christ, is to be always with the poor.

Jesus did not transform public policy; he said that he would take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh that we might love. So the daily practice of the works of mercy is a spiritual exercise. The regular exposure of our stony hearts to the experience of the poor ensures that we remain tender to their suffering.

To sit down each day and break bread with the poor, to offer some sense of community and connectedness, is to say that even the least tolerable of our brothers and sisters has dignity and worth. All humans are animated with the fullness of life. No one is merely a cartoon.


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