Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thoughts on Community #1

November 28, 2011

So many things have had me thinking about community in recent weeks. Perhaps the way in for me has been a book called Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches by Laura Stivers (Fortress, 2011). She uses the ethics of a liberationist called Traci West of Drew University to explore issues of homelessness. Along the way she articulates various attitudes that ‘society’ has taken to the homeless criticizing what she calls “assimilate or criminalize.” She looks at various models that have been widely used including the Rescue Mission Movement and Habitat for Humanity. She appears to have some admiration for the ‘Housing First’ Movement which seeks to put chronically homeless people into their own apartments rather than tr to move them through a “continuum of care”, but which still seems to be about assimilating homeless people into societal norms. (It is my understanding that those prepared to provide and care for the men of the in the event that the Task Force for the Homeless wither step aside or are evicted are focused on the Housing First model.)

Set against this work is an idea that never quite gets articulated to my satisfaction but which appears to be that ‘the homeless’ are a constituency or community in themselves who need to be addressed as a collective and legitimate ‘other’. We read things like this: “Using prophetic-disruption methodology entails not simply deconstructing oppressive ideologies but also identifying and addressing power, privilege, and social domination.” (p.116) Or again: “So long as Habitat emphasizes changing the conscience of the rich, it will not adopt a structural critique.” (p.117) This ‘prophetic-disruption refers to “our Christina calling to confront, just as Jesus did, that which denies human well-being and community.” Stivers writes “For as long as humans have been around, domination and oppression have been used to gain power and privilege, and Scripture and theological rationales have been used to justify the status quo of inequality.” (p.7)

Stivers’ research and descriptions of the current reality of homelessness in America makes clear that there is a structural problem in that there is simply not enough low cost housing or adequate shelter and other services for those in need. We know this to be true anecdotally in Atlanta as Shirley Franklin’s first class efforts to engage the whole community in addressing the challenge of people living on the streets ended up being seriously underfunded after the recession of 2008.

The homeless people that we address at All Saints’ are not the majority, those who are invisible, the women and children, and so on. We address the ‘chronically homeless’ m any of whom refuse to live at the Peachtree Pine shelter which they describe as “being like a prison” and yet who resemble many of those who do choose to live there, some of whose lives have been transformed by some sense of kindness and community. They raise the question for me as to whether ‘the community’ is allowed to develop norms of behavior, violation of which puts someone outside of the community and therefore in need of ‘help’ in some way. The behavior of some disrupts the ‘wellbeing’ and ‘community’ of others. Is it criminalizing poverty to say that someone may not engage in drug use and prostitution on the All Saints’ campus and the ability of some of the homeless to regulate their own behavior has meant that we will no longer be a welcome place at night when we are closed? This is undoubtedly a decision of ‘power and privilege’ in one sense, but also a vision of community that is not governed by those who find inconvenient the norms which inevitably become rules when they are violated often enough.

Descriptions of the ‘Occupy Movement’ make clear that even in a ‘leaderless democracy’ the behavior of some is eventually curtailed or limited for the wellbeing of the many. I have more thinking to do about the ‘homeless advocates’ who seem to use the homeless to promote ‘disruption’ and be ‘prophetic’ without apparently wishing to challenge those they allegedly serve to abide by norms of the larger community. They become terrorists for a community that, however defined, finds it difficult to adjust to societal ‘norms’. Should assimilation not be the goal if community means that everyone thrives?

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