[Preached at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle WA, in observance of Homelessness Sunday]
“Jesus Was Homeless”
Good morning! It’s wonderful to be with you all today. My name is Aaron Scott, I’m with Chaplains on the Harbor, and I brought three of my amazing coworkers with me today: Mashyla Buckmaster, Tracy Clayton and Skye Clayton. We are a mission station of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, based out on the coast in rural Grays Harbor County. The Rev. Sarah Monroe and I co-founded this organization six years ago with a backpack full of sandwiches, a $500 grant, and a pack of cigarettes. Six years later, we have an eleven-person staff—the majority of whom are formerly homeless. We run a community center out of our church building in Westport with showers, free laundry facilities, free wifi, a hygiene bank, a cold weather shelter and weekly worship. We do street outreach, jail visits, distribute a jail and prison newsletter, and distribute Narcan (the opioid overdose reversal drug). We operate a four acre vegetable farm which we run as a CSA—selling shares to people who can afford to buy them and donating our surplus back into our free meal programs. We offer supportive, living-wage employment to people getting off the street, out of jail, and on their feet. We run six feeding programs each week. We are deeply involved in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. And we recently settled our second victorious federal lawsuit against the City of Aberdeen, for violating the human and Constitutional rights of homeless people.
Mashyla, Tracy, Skye and I are all going to be hanging out at your coffee hour to talk more with you about our work. But you all are observing “Homelessness Sunday” this morning, and we know that Grays Harbor County hasn’t cornered the market on homelessness, so while I’m up here, I want to talk about the things that we have in common on this front—from Seattle to Aberdeen and beyond. And I want to talk about where God is, in the thick of it all.
I want to start first with numbers—numbers which I hope will piss you off. First, according to Amnesty International: there are 3.5 million homeless people living in the United States. Second, also according to Amnesty International: there are 18.5 million vacant homes in the United States. 3.5 million homeless people, and 18.5 million vacant homes. In the richest country on earth. That is enough vacant homes for every homeless person to have five homes.
Our problem is not homeless people. Our problem is that we have decided, as a society, that it is permissible for 18.5 million homes to sit vacant while people are freezing to death in the streets.
Our problem is that we have decided, as a society, that it is permissible for 18.5 million homes to sit vacant while mothers are sleeping in their vehicles with their babies in the dead of winter.
Our problem is that we have decided, as a society, that it is permissible for 18.5 million homes to sit vacant while people from big cities and small towns all over this country are dying in droves from drug overdoses because self-medicating for physical pain and psychological trauma is light years more accessible that healthcare and astronomically cheaper than rent. Street drugs are cheap. You know what’s not? College tuition. Heart medication. Epi-pens. Therapy. Drugs are frighteningly easy to find. You know what’s not? A living wage job and an affordable one-bedroom apartment.
Homelessness is not natural. Homelessness is not God’s will. It’s not some survival-of-the-fittest game God is playing on us. Mass homelessness on the scale we have seen in this country since the 1980s is not a permanent part of our history that has always been there. Homelessness is the result systemic, sinful policies. It is a man-made crisis. There is nothing mysterious about it. We stopped funding public housing in this country a generation ago. From 1978 to 1983, HUD—the office of Housing and Urban Development—saw its budget cut by 77%. That money never came back. The same happened with the rural housing funding that was available through USDA. And at the very same time that public money for truly affordable housing was gutted at the federal level, we saw a huge surge in the number of laws passed that criminalize homelessness. What does that mean? That means that the powers and principalities of this nation cut funding for housing, and when they saw an enormous number of people displaced and end up on the streets, they found a way to get them off the streets by locking them up. And very steadily ever since then, have been selling a narrative to all of us that people are homeless because of their own bad decisions and moral failings. You know what I think is a moral failing? A system that allows 3.5 million people to be homeless while 18.5 million homes sit vacant. It’s not like this country ran out of money. You and I may have run out of money, with wages stagnating since the 1970s—but the Pentagon budget certainly hasn’t run out of money. Contracts for the operation and maintenance of immigrant detention centers and the militarization of our southern border certainly didn’t run out of money. The US prison system certainly hasn’t run out of money. Amazon hasn’t run out of money.
We are the church. What can we do in the face of all this? That can be a scary question because it’s a lot to take on. I try to start with a different one: what is our Christian responsibility in the face of all this? To what work is God most deeply calling us?
We do a lot of good, as churches. We feed people, we run shelters, we do clothing drives, we write checks. That’s all really important, and we need to keep doing all of that. But Jesus is persistent in reminding us that he’s not just about acts of kindness. Jesus is also about the truth. If we want to follow Jesus, we have to be about the truth. We have to tell the whole story, about how we got here. And we have to be honest about what it’s going to take to turn this thing around. It’s going to take more than sock drives at Christmas and food drives at Thanksgiving—we are going to have to look at the structures responsible for the suffering of God’s people. It’s also going to take more than talking about homeless people—we are required, by the example of Jesus, to talk with and listen to and accept authority from homeless people. No movement is ever won on behalf of a people who are not included in it as leaders themselves. Can you imagine a movement for women’s suffrage that was kindly handed to them by men? Can you imagine the abolition of slavery ever happening without the leadership of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and the countless thousands of people who set themselves free by escaping north, before Lincoln ever said they had the right to do so? No. That is not how social movements work. If we say we want economic justice, then poor people and homeless people need to be at the center of whatever work we are doing.
We worship a Messiah whose family was on the run from the law when he was born. They squatted in barn with him for a while and then they crossed the border. He grew up in one of the poorest backwaters of the Roman Empire, spending all of his time among peasants and petty criminals—not above the poor, but fully among the poor. One of poor, in life and in death. Not because he benevolently gave away all his wealth, but because he himself didn’t have it to begin with. He spent his time in places Bethany, which literally translates to “House of the Poor.” He was assassinated by the Roman government in the same manner as rebel slaves were, because that’s who the Romans saw him as. His friends buried him in a borrowed grave. He didn’t stay there. And he once said of himself, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” So if we are looking for him today, we need to be looking in the right place. Don’t worship a homeless person on Sunday and ignore one on Monday.