Claude

Claude is the Streetwise vendor who is often found outside of J’s workplace. He is one of the most compassionate, heartfelt men I have ever met. Every time I see him, it brings a smile to my face, because he has a beautiful sort of faith I’ve found in few other people. He knows what’s going on in J’s life and mine, and he prays for us in our struggles. How many other complete strangers have you met who will do that for you?

Claude is not, by anyone’s definition, a physically handsome man. His clothes are ragged, his teeth are crooked and stained from smoking. I don’t know how old he is, but he is not young. Despite his outward appearance, he has a radiant spirit that shines through and transforms his face into a beautiful sight.

Claude is not homeless. He has an apartment somewhere, though I’m not sure where. He lives off what he makes from selling Streetwise, the occasional odd job, and the generosity of those who pass by. When he lost his gloves this last winter, a friend gave him a new set. Another friend bought him a pay-as-you-go cell phone, so that he would have a way to get help if he was hurt; he has epilepsy, and can’t always be sure someone will be able to help him if he has a seizure. Many people bring him food or drinks from the bakery where J works. If he has extra, he takes it and shares it with the people in his apartment building who are struggling to get by.

Claude is not a beggar. I have never seen him ask anyone for money – he is simply selling a product, and many who don’t want the product but want to help him get by give him cash without taking a paper. J and I buy the papers whenever he has a new one, because they are interesting, though we rarely get around to reading them.

Claude has told us that he used to be quite wealthy – but he has told us at the same time that he did some pretty terrible things to get there. I think he’s happier now, though I can’t be sure. He once had a daughter, but she was killed when she was still a child.

This January, when the winter here was at its coldest, Claude disappeared for a while. Neither J nor I had seen him, and we started to worry about whether he was doing okay. It turned out that he had been doing some work for his uncle while it was cold. But as we asked around, trying to find out what had happened to him, we discovered the sheer ugliness of heart that many people have towards street people. J told me how he asked a friend about Claude, and the response was “Oh, that crackhead who always is in front of [J’s work]? Haven’t seen him.”

Claude is not, to the best of my knowledge, an addict of any sort. Even if he was, that wouldn’t make me love him any less. I’ve known several active and recovering addicts, and while their disease can lead them to act in terrible ways and do things they’ll regret, they are all wonderful people when not in the grips of that disease. I have never seen Claude be anything but loving and kind towards everyone he meets, and the assumptions that people make about him because they have never stopped to talk to him break my heart.

It was equally heartbreaking (and unfortunately unsurprising) to come across two news stories in the past few weeks that show just how much fear and hatred there is of street people in our society. The first talks about a church in Madison, WI that has lost its access to a parking ramp owned by another business because it serves as an overflow shelter for about 20 men in the winter.

Fred Mohs, the ramp owner, thinks efforts to help the homeless are destroying Madison’s vitality.

“The fundamental problem is the homeless are bad neighbors as a group,” Mohs told WISC-TV.

Mohs told church members they can no longer have free parking for their Sunday services unless they stop catering to the homeless.

“It’s my way of making a point,” Mohs said.

That point, presumably, is “Christians should not shelter the homeless”. Lest you think I’m overstating the point, here’s the last bit of that article:

Mohs said he would restore free parking as long as the church took a single step: “Close the shelter.”

I don’t have any way to justify this assumption, but my guess would be that Mohs thinks of himself as a Christian, or at least would claim he was one if asked. If that’s the case, I think he needs to take another look at his Bible. But what really gets to me is the statement about how “the homeless are bad neighbors as a group”. Replace “the homeless” with “black people” and it becomes obvious just how hateful this is. And I have to wonder whether Mohs truly believed nobody would notice – because aside from being disgusting, that statement is business suicide, especially when other businesses can step in and fill the need. I know that I would not want a single penny of mine to go to support this man. I’d give the money to the church, instead.

And yet the second article manages to be even more astonishing. Esther Viti, the woman mentioned in the article, is so upset by homeless people having the audacity to sit on public benches that she is asking for volunteers to sit on the benches so that homeless people can’t use them. It’s the ultimate in fake social service – volunteer to quite literally sit on your ass.

Since the homeless sleeping on the benches has become an issue, her [Deborah Marengo, president of Promote La Jolla] group has purchased benches with dividers to prevent people from lying on them. However, that hasn’t solved the problem because the homeless have “perfected sleeping sitting upright,” Marengo said.

Again, how dare they sleep sitting upright when they’ve got nowhere else to go! At least Marengo later acknowledges that the problem is not going to be solved by people sitting on their asses for three hours at a time. Maybe if the call had been for people to spend three hours at a time volunteering in shelters, or advocating for homeless rights, it would have gotten some actual volunteers.

Both of these stories show a fundamental and crucial lack of understanding about homelessness. The prevailing mindset seems to be “If we just get rid of all of the things that could possibly support a homeless person, they’ll go away.” Which to some extent may be true – they’ll find their way to a neighboring city, or get so desperate they commit a crime and end up in jail, or just die of hunger, overexposure, and the like. And if “I wish they’d just go away” is your mindset towards the homeless, let me remind you of something: 23% of homeless people (mostly men) are veterans. If you can’t overcome your contempt for those struggling with mental illness, addiction, and/or the aftereffects of the housing crisis, maybe you can muster up some respect for those who risked their lives to protect the privileges you enjoy.

The solutions to homelessness, such as they are, will never be completely effective – but they can sure do better than they are now. Shelters are a crucial part of the puzzle (along with affordable access to treatment for mental illness and addiction), because without a place to sleep, shower, store their belongings, and care for their physical appearance, a homeless person will have a very difficult time finding a job, a more permanent place to live, or a way out the trap our society’s hatred of street people puts them in.

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