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Blessed are the poor...

On April 22nd the US Supreme Court will hear a case involving the city of Grants Pass in southern Oregon and whether they can criminalize people who live outside. Grants Pass vs. Johnson is a very significant case that could remove the protections given in 1962 that protected a person’s status (poor, mentally ill, addicted, etc.) thereby criminalizing the unhoused simply for existing.  This small town in our beloved state of Oregon could very well create a condition under which every person who finds themselves without a house, without a car, or without a shelter bed, will be criminalized for conditions beyond their control. 

In Salem, there has been a great deal of time, energy, and money spent on behalf of our unhoused neighbors over the last decades.  Public, private, faith-based, and secular organizations have dedicated tens of millions of dollars to help people and address their needs. Over the years this church has had an important role in creating solutions and supporting our outside neighbors, and yet the number of unhoused people has only increased, with the need for housing and services right along with it. The sight of a small encampment, a tent city, or people sleeping in doorways, is just part of the seemingly unchangeable landscape in which we live.

During my recent trip to the Netherlands, I kept asking myself where the homeless population live? With approximately 17.5 million residents, I expected to see some trace of those who live outside. Did you know that there are only 38,000 homeless people living in all of the Netherlands? This includes those living with friends and relatives without a permanent fixed address of their own. Contrast this with the state of Oregon which has a little over 4 million residents and over 20,000 unhoused people. In all of the places I went - Utrecht, Haarlem, and Amsterdam - I did not see the tents, trash, encampments, or panhandlers that mark our community.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

We know that one of the biggest drivers for becoming unhoused is the cost of housing.  Even with a housing voucher, a person or family are often one crisis away from living outside involuntarily.  A health crisis, death of a loved one, loss of a job, or divorce can easily move someone to the street.  Add domestic violence, addiction, or incarceration, and a person can become unhouseable in the eyes of the system.  And when a person becomes unhouseable, making sleeping-in-public a crime in Oregon could create 20,000 criminals overnight.  Florida has already done this. Are we next?

I suspect the Dutch and other European countries do not struggle with significant unhoused populations because they have socialized medicine which separates healthcare from profits. Housing costs are about 24% below that of the US, and they generally have great public transportation, which enables people to afford stable housing outside the cities. Add to that a social safety net funded by taxing the wealthy and there is a greater chance most people will remain housed.  

But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.

Every day I come to the office I think about FCCUCC's historic ministries to our unhoused neighbors - the Porch Ministry, the lunch program, the warming shelter, Family Promise, and all of the other crisis related programs this congregation has offered over time.  I think about those who came daily for a sack lunch, some just hungry, others clearly struggling with addiction, mental illness and other kinds of health conditions.  I wonder what could happen if we, as a society, chose to tax the wealthy to fund our social safety net adequately.  I wonder what could happen if we invested in truly affordable housing and universal healthcare.  And now I wonder what will happen if the Supreme Court finds that criminalizing anyone who sleeps in public is acceptable.  

Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.

This is more than a matter of money. It is a matter of morality. It is the matter of a society that cares for the least of these, not as an idea, but because they are our neighbors, friends, people with stories, desires, hopes and fears. Those who knew Barbara, one of the regulars at the Porch Ministry, can attest to that.  And for those of us who follow Jesus, it is a matter of faith.  To continue to seek ways to live into the command of Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves is to be challenged when our neighbors, inside or out, are criminalized just because they are.  Whether homeless, poor, old, Black, brown, Muslim, Jew, LGBTQIA+, or... we are called to seek justice for and embrace all, seeking to see the image of God in the other.

May we hunger on behalf of our neighbors for housing and healthcare, support services and dignity.  And may we be curious about how FCCUCC is being called to be a place of hope for our unhoused neighbors in this moment of potential criminalization.

Peace - Pastor Robin

Click here to watch one story from Grants Pass.

Click here to read an article about the Supreme Court Case.

Click here for information about Salem and Marion County homelessness.

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