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Trains, Hobos and a Just World

As I was driving into work this morning, I noticed the neatly lined up shopping carts filled with personal belongings of those living under the bridge. These carts were parked along the sidewalk under the overpass next to the train station and covered with tarps or garbage bags to protect the contents from the weather. It was an interesting sight since I am more accustomed to the more disorderly "piles" of belongings in most homeless encampments.

Just then, the train came by and a collection of thoughts raced through my mind all at one.

  • How vulnerable is this group of humans to any kind of train disaster that might happen here?

  • What is this train carrying?

  • Who are these people?

  • We used to call homeless people "bums", "tramps", "hobos". What changed?

  • I wonder how many of these people are train-hopping?

  • What would happen to the people under the bridge if the city came and took all of these carts away?

  • I can't imagine the life that exists in the tenuous space of train tracks, shopping carts, and over passes.

With OR House Bill 5019 allocating $200 Million for various housing initiatives to reach a goal of 36,000 additional housing units per year, I wonder if anyone is actually talking to the people we call "unhoused." Yes, we need more affordable housing, for sure! We need more humane ways for people to live with dignity and care. But for many, the idea of moving into the restrictions of a sheltered life is not what they desire. For others, they ability to move through the system to then qualify for housing if beyond their capacity as well.

Part of what we, the housed and privileged, most often don't take into account is the fact that to live housed is to live within a culture of restriction that humans have railed against for all of human existence. Entire ethnographic cultures are considered nomadic. From Bedouin to Roma, Maasai to American Van Life, being nomadic has been and remains a real and vibrant way to live. The difference is in how we relate to and respect (or disrespect) those who choose this alternative way of sheltering.

As a country that is so committed to the idea that housing is personal and fixed, we will struggle with those who find peace in a "vagabond" way of life. The "Dirty Kids" who travel around the country, doing small jobs so they can earn just enough to live a free and unfettered life, consume nearly nothing and have virtually no carbon footprint compared to those of us who live the traditional life. In an earlier time, they would be known as "hobos". They have gatherings in different parts of the country in national forests and have created a culture not unlike what Jeff MacGregor's article in the Smithsonian Magazine describes. They are happy and are family.

I have spoken with a number of the folks who frequent our steps that have no desire to be housed. They could no more live under a roof then I could live under an overpass. I know people who live in their vans, by choice, people who are sane, sober and financially secure who live without a roof. It is part of how they choose to "walk humbly" on this planet. Sadly, we do not see this as a viable life (even though so many Boomers hitchhiked around the country or in Europe for a while themselves). We see a mortgage and rent as "real" life, consumption of household goods (aka. those Wayfair ads) as good civic behavior, and conformity as "freedom".

I wish I lived in a world where I wasn't instinctively afraid of the people under the bridge or the folks that come by asking for a sack lunch, but I admit that I am. I wish I lived in a world where those who wish to live without walls were seen as humans worthy of respect and space to simply be without living in fear that their shopping cart will be thrown away with everything they own along with it. I wish I wasn't taught that they are just "bums" with little to no value in society. But that's not the world I live in.

AND, I know we, in this faith community, have an opportunity to wrestle with what it means to be a Just Peace Congregation as it relates to our unhoused neighbors. We will, once again, be in discernment together about how we feel called to be with the unsheltered around us. We do this because they are in the yard, at the door, and seek love and compassion just like the rest of us. I don't know what that means, but I know that as we share our fears and hopes, our experiences, and our vision for this little corner of God's Beloved Community, we can discover how God is moving us to be a place of life for all, even the hobos, tramps, and bums.

And I pray for the courage to be a part of that gift of life.

Peace - Pastor Robin

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