Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Confessions of a Retail Worker: Homelessness and philosophy

This is a piece I originally wrote about two years back, and with the current contraction of the American economy last quarter, it seems just as appropriate today as it did then.

I thought I would talk a bit about life outside of the workplace, and address homelessness a little more in depth.

I’ve done the “squeeze into a shelter with no privacy” thing, and I’ve done “live in an SRO across from drug users” thing. To be perfectly honest, I would rather be on a park bench than do either of those things again. So I’m going to talk a bit about a popular, eclectic group of shelters called Catholic Worker shelters. But first, a caveat:

The institutional Church and the all male hierarchy have nothing to do with Catholic Worker shelters. The shelters are run by regular Catholics, not the hierarchy, not the Bishops or any Church leaders. The Catholic hierarchy makes no decisions and controls no funds in CW houses. The Pope and the Bishops have absolutely no legal authority to shut them down if they wanted to. In any country.

So let me be clear that this diary is not talking about the hierarchy or the egregious criminal behavior covering up the pedophile scandal.

Instead I am going to focus on the regular people who work in these Catholic Worker shelters. Don’t confuse the “institutional” Church programs like Catholic Charities with the people-powered, mujerista-theology inspired, Catholic Worker houses run by laity.

The problem with most homeless shelters run by bureaucracies like Catholic Charities or your Local Governmental Agency  is that “clients” have to jump through a multitude of hoops to qualify, and are subject to more rules than a first grade classroom. There are rules about what time you must arrive, what time you must stop reading and turn out your light, and rules about what possessions you are allowed to have. There are rules about showering, for goodness’ sake, and many more rules that only bureaucrats could dream up.

These bureaucracies implement such rules in order to promote “safety” and “order”. Depending on the particular social workers at your location, you might wind up with an authoritarian, dictatorial, “safe” place where you won’t be stabbed, but will need permission to use the toilet. Or, you might have a place that is completely unsafe, and you would be better off sleeping in the open on a day F13 decides to take on the Bloods.

But there is a third way. Peter Maurin taught us:

   1. People who are in need

   and are not afraid to beg

   give to people not in need

   the occasion to do good

   for goodness’sake.

   2. Modern society calls the beggar

   bum and panhandler

   and gives him the bum’s rush.

   But the Greeks used to say

   that people in need

   are the ambassadors of the gods.

   3. Although you may be called

   bums and panhandlers

   you are in fact

   the Ambassadors of God.

This is made manifest in the way his spiritual descendents run their Catholic Worker shelters. Catholic Worker members organize their completely individualized and autonomous shelters keeping in mind always that the poor are Ambassadors of God. And they run their shelters accordingly.

There are only two rules at the largest shelters.

No fighting.

No drinking.

That’s it. You are treated as an Ambassador of God. If you are in a true blue CW house (and no, I’m not counting you in that number, St. Joe’s of Rochester), they will help you acquire clothing appropriate for job interviews should you so choose.

Or not, if you don’t choose. If you’re severely mentally ill, and cannot, they won’t push you.

You can eat whenever you feel the need (they always have bread and butter, if nothing else), you can make a cup of tea, or join them for a Friday Roundtable. They might ask you to help on the soup line, if they have one, or answer the phone. If you’re any sort of trustworthy person, you will probably even have a key so that you can come and go as you please. You will not have your privacy invaded, and you will be treated as a person at all times.

And while some of the shelters are definitely behind the times on LBGT issues (I’m looking at you directly New York City), others houses are full steam ahead with regard to advancing the rights of LBGT homeless people. The Des Moines house has led the way on that one. Their article, a “Catholic Worker Statement on Hetrosexism”, is one of the better pieces on the subject. Most Catholic Worker houses are too poor to have much in the way of computers but some individuals have email. This statement was republished over at Soulforce. Those of you familiar with Soulforce might know already that Kara Speltz comes from a Catholic Worker activist background.

The shelters have done much since their origins that Dorothy spoke of. Her words:

We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in.

We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, “We need bread.” We could not say, “Go, be thou filled.” If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.

We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded.

We were just sitting there talking and someone said, “Let’s all go live on a farm.”

It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.

I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not always easy to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight.

The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say.

The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone anymore.

But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.

   -Dorothy Day


  1. jlms qkw

    for sharing this here tonight.  

    there is a different in many churches between the leadership and the laity.  the regular people who attend.  

    good reminder.  

  2. rb137

    And I love to think that people in need are Ambassadors of God. But the idea that homeless people deserve — and are entitled to — dignity and grace is a rare thing.


Comments are closed.