Why Do We Protest?

Why do we protest St. Louis city Department of Human Service efforts to relocate tent cities? Rev. Chris Rice of NLEC offers some reasons. Among the responses we have received regarding our march through downtown St. Louis city on Friday, […]

Why do we protest St. Louis city Department of Human Service efforts to relocate tent cities? Rev. Chris Rice of NLEC offers some reasons.

Among the responses we have received regarding our march through downtown St. Louis city on Friday, April 27th there have been allies who have taken us to task. They say that the encampments on Mullanphy Street: Dignity Harbor, Hopeville, and Sparta should be closed because people should not be allowed to live in places unfit for human habitation. They applaud the city’s efforts to place them in housing and they wonder how anyone could not do the same. Most of all, they say that because we are marching for the right to an encampment we are hindering good efforts at ending homelessness. I call these persons allies because that is what they are. Rev. Mike Kinman of Christ Church Cathedral, and Rev. Kathleen Wilder of Centenary Methodist Church are serving the homeless and poor of St. Louis and are advocating for their rights every day. But it is important to say that they oppose us on this issue of encampments. We agree to disagree even as we continue to serve “the least of these” together.

Other ministers and advocates agree with us that homeless people should have the choice to be able to live in tents instead of shelters. They should be able to live in their vehicles. They should be able to keep their pets with them. We believe that a tent encampment can be a means of service to homeless people in transition until they are able to get into housing.

I recently penned a reply to issues brought up by Rev. Kinman recently, so what follows are three points he has made, with my reactions:

Here are his statements from his blog, Come Together:

1) The city’s closing of the encampments and relocating of the residents is a good thing. 

NLEC has always made clear that we support all those who want to take the city’s offer to get into housing. We are further under no illusions that somehow we will get the city to not close down the encampments because of our protest. We brought forward a robust, very nuanced appeal, wanting a discussion about a study done by the Continuum of Care itself. Rather than discussion, once again we face misunderstanding and the Mr. Seidhoff’s old line: “Larry Rice is on his own while every other agency in the city is on our side.”

2) Movements for change run off the rails when they treat potential allies as enemies. 

I agree with this. Was my making nearly every General meeting of the Continuum of Care from September of 2010 to 2011, and working to befriend so many hard working case managers all over the city in order to place people in housing the work of an enemy?

3) Well-conceived band-aid measures are necessary, but until we take a systems approach, urban poverty and homelessness will persist. 

I also agree with this, however I don’t call providing basic human necessities a band-aid, but part of the Corporal Works of Mercy, these include:

to feed the hungry,

to give drink to the thirsty,

to shelter the homeless,

to clothe the naked,

to visit prisoners,

to visit the sick,

and to bury the dead.

And when I do them for strangers, I’m doing them for Jesus Christ. I don’t consider this half a solution, I consider it obedience to Christ. I don’t do it for cities or for systems, but for persons, in whom resides the imago dei. Now, for the systems approach, I hope you know that we are in agreement. It is a livable wage, a steady income, and safe affordable housing that ends homelessness.

I am constantly checking HUD’s federal data and the National Alliance to End Homelessness’s website to understand what’s taking place.

And this is why we believe it is duplicitous for the city of St. Louis to destroy affordable housing quietly, manage many properties through LRA that could be more easily made available, do away with SROs in downtown, and then at the same time claim to be ending homelessness.

I asked Mr. Seidhoff in a Continuum of Care meeting why the city did not release information as to how many units of affordable housing disappear annually. He called it a separate issue. I asked him about foreclosures and whether those numbers account for the newly homeless and he said emphatically, “They do not.” So to say that NLEC sides with band-aids and opposes a systems approach is obscuring the truth. I like to think that together (myself of NLEC and other members of the Executive Board of the CoC) we pressured the city to lift its 90 day residency restrictions on shelter for the homeless for the first time since the late 1980s. That happened in January of this year. The Chair of the CoC kept talking about doing it for a solid year. But you should notice that when the press got the word, officially it was the city’s idea all along.

I’ll say it again and again, NLEC wants the homeless in homes, but we also know from working daily with the people, doing case management is difficult work. Many people do not trust nursing homes, landlords, even hospitals, and so encouraging them to do the next right thing is part of the Spiritual works of mercy. These include:

to instruct the ignorant,

to counsel the doubtful,

to admonish sinners,

to bear wrongs patiently,

to forgive offenses willingly,

to comfort the afflicted,

and to pray for the living and the dead.

It is here, in the spiritual works of mercy that I locate our place for protest as a form of worship. Dorothy Day saw picketing with unions as “instructing the ignorant.” She said,

“These men, inarticulate men for the most part, because they are used to using their hands rather than their tongues, have all too few leaders and all too many critics. Christ was a worker, born by choice into their class, used to hardship and poverty. Because His feet walked where theirs have trod, because His hands also were broadened and soiled by tools and sweat, because we want to be close to Him, as close to Him in this life as we can possibly get, because through love of Him we love our brothers, we were at Bethlehem [KY] (so strangely named) this past week.”

Far from attempting to shame the city and the Continuum of Care, which is how this tends to be taken, we are pressing the city to consider all its citizens and all its practices. We fear that the city is using one service (the TIP program to place encampment residents) even as it continues to lose affordable housing in other places. By its very definition affordable housing allows someone to only have to spend 1/3 of their income on it, period. Across the nation millions of people are severely cost burdened with housing. It is harder and harder for so many to be able to afford housing in the long term.

The other thing that we oppose is a ban and future criminalization of encampments. Do we have a chance to keep the city from closing this property? No. But must we speak out that tent city models work across the nation? Yes, I will. I’ll go further and suggest that living in a tent city myself for a while to help it get started would not be out of the question for me.

If anything, the encampments on Mullanphy have proven that encampment communities do not work when the leadership and outside support do not have the same ends in mind. Sadly, the things we want for people and the things they want for themselves aren’t always the same even when verbally agreed upon. We all knew that it was only a matter of time until the city moved to close the area. We cannot however agree that no good has come out of this experience or that everyone there as you suggest, “demeaned themselves and others,” by living there.

Now onto your other statements:

“The encampments are dangerous- a public health and safety hazard. People living outside in filth and subject to assault and robbery is neither safe nor dignified.”

Having spent considerable time at Hopeville, I have to agree or disagree depending on the day. I don’t think anyone needs to defend them or their history. They’ve been living in public for two years. Many different people have come and gone and have stories to share. You tell me how anyone can live sustainably without money and do it safe and healthy. A few of my friends on Facebook were there for it and they have good and bad memories to share. This is kind of like some neighborhoods in St. Louis I know. Should people only pick the nice neighborhoods to live in to make the city a better place?

“The people are not being evicted but are being relocated into safe housing.”

However you want to put it, the camps are being closed down. I’m not going to argue over the words “eviction, relocation, etc.” except to say that on May 4, OG, who did a video on youtube saying, “We will be carried off these fields in body bags, that’s what we vow” will actually be leaving the structures he built at Dignity Harbor and relocating elsewhere.

“In humility regard others as better than yourselves.” Phil. 2:3

OG put a lot of time and love into what he built, and to not get to know the man or his reasons is, to not humbly respect his work. He had the right to build it and spend three years nurturing it, and he has the right to accept the city’s offer and call it a day.

“Finally, we do need to provide band-aid measures that give compassionate care to those who are currently homeless. It’s why we have our Miss Carol’s Breakfast Program on Saturday mornings. It’s why we support The Bridge both financially and with volunteers for their Sunday lunch program. It’s why when City Director of Homeless Services Bill Siedhoff asked me yesterday if we would allow a portapotty to be put on the NE corner of 13th and Olive to try to alleviate the annual warm weather public health problem of outdoor urination and defecation (of which our own buildings are often a target), my answer was, “If you think it might help … absolutely.” But none of these things do anything to end homelessness.”

I can only reply as I have before that the Works of Mercy are not band-aids any more than worship is a waste of time this side of eternity, or that building the Kingdom of God is a meaningless struggle in the modern age where our leading minds believe in a closed universe. HUD is not advocating that emergency shelters disappear in place of Permanent Supportive Housing, but by the rhetoric used locally, many believe that there is no more need for shelter in the county or metro east. Permanent Supportive housing works with people who have been stabilized in shelters. I regularly get calls from case managers begging me to allow their client to stay longer in our shelter until their voucher kicks in. Our shelter is part of the solution. But, as you said, you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric.

You know that I spoke with you about the portapotty issue just the other day, asking how we might work together to, in your words, a systems theory, to deal with public safety and health issues in downtown. Regardless of how many meetings I go to with you or developers, it tends to come back to me that NLEC is the source of the health and safety problems in downtown.

Which leads me back to the hardest of the Works of Mercy for me to practice personally,

Bear wrongs patiently

Forgive offenses willingly

Sometimes all the “he said, she said” in this whole process of communication is more than I can take. I’m meeting new people all the time. I go to county and city and Metro East meetings. But mostly, I meet with people every day who need comfort in their affliction. They don’t ask for it in so many words, but somehow I try to offer the assurance that they are heard and that yes, I care, and Jesus Christ cares.

Working with the sojourning community (as Kathleen Wilder likes to call them) is teaching me that love and faithfulness are spiritual things that are hard won in the stuff of life. I don’t have the patience for this, but there is no easier softer way to love God and neighbor. I don’t have the patience, so I know where I need to go for it everyday.

I don’t consider you an enemy in this struggle Mike, but an important ally. I have no enemies in Jesus Christ. My dad suggested recently that maybe I could arrange him a lunch with Bill Seidhoff to bring them together. But despite what you may hear, I already know that Bill and Antoinette and the CoC are not our enemies. We are working together all the time off camera.

Now let me address the idea that we spread dissension toward the city, or slander potential allies. I believe that slander is a sin, as is misrepresentation. In Celebration of Discipline Richard J. Foster has a quote from Bernard of Clairveaux:

Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Learn the lesson that, if you are to do the work of a prophet, what you need is not a scepter but a hoe.”

He warns us that the spiteful tongue “strikes a deadly blow at charity in all who hear him speak and, so far as it can, destroys root and branch, not only in the immediate hearers but also in all others to whom the slander, flying from lip to lip, is afterwards repeated.” Guarding the reputation of others is a deep and lasting service.

Slander and gossip are some of the worst sins in community, whether in my church or in the larger city. In our frustration with the present realities of poverty, violence, sickness and fear it is so easy to be tempted to write each other off, spread lies about each other, or assassinate each other’s character. My father, myself, and all of our staff and volunteers are constantly called fools. “Larry Rice needs his head examined.” That sort of low blow comes with the territory. But I have never said, nor will I ever say, that my sojourning neighbors should become enemies of the city. God knows my heart, and he knows I often say things that get me into trouble. I need the very mercy I hold out to others.

Arguments about homelessness are really about socialization rather than privation. It comes down to an argument over whether there is a place for people without a habitat and without income in our society and for how long. If homeless people make up only 1% of the population in the St. Louis region (city/county/metro area) then that one percent must be as invisible as 1% seems. If they congregate in ways and places that seem unruly, then the government’s job is to step in and make them invisible again.

And this is where I as a minister take issue with the prevailing sentiment in issues of socialization and privation. I believe people learn by working. They socialize with the people they’re with. If they’re new in town and are made unwelcome, they will go where they feel welcome. That has been to the encampments. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the number of unsheltered persons Missouri grew by 52% from 2009 to 2011 from 1,490 people to 2,271 (The State of Homelessness in America 2012). As we look at the greater St. Louis area and consider that homeless counts have been conducted by volunteers and have struggled to find a true representative sample, we think the number of estimated homeless for the region is too low. That number is at 3,630. In January of 2012, NLEC participated in the federal Point in Time Count at our 1411 Locust location. The city had been reporting previously around 60 persons as staying at our location. This year, because of our participation, they reported around 260. Many area organizations that serve the homeless with temporary shelter do not report in this count. For this reason the numbers are off.

If the community that expects socialization (the city for instance) does not provide services like clean restrooms and space for habitation of the unsheltered, if it doesn’t provide transportation to get around except by ambulance or police vehicle, then it should expect antisocial behavior. If it criminalizes congregating in encampments after two years of providing water and a use of the land that involved both passive avoidance and active discouragement, confused inhabitants into taking whatever they can get, then far from succeeding at socializing people into jobs and housing, it has once again sent the message to its impoverished citizens, “We’ll tell you where you’re welcome. Anywhere we say you deserve.”

The cost of government funds in the placement of people should be carefully weighed in the long term. Accepting placement involves never qualifying again. Can the government guarantee the lasting impact of its services with job placement for supporting income job security and a livable wage?

The answer can be found on the streets today in first hand testimony of those who were placed a year or so ago, and yet are back on the streets homeless now.

Peter Maurin had a vision of voluntary poverty  and personalism. He
“never accepted force as a means to realize his vision, violence was not in his vocabulary. He believed in the one-person revolution becoming the two-person revolution, and so on. He won his victories one at a time, for he believed that each individual was a spiritual being connected to eternity, and his vision of things as they should be occurred in the fullness of time, not a fragment of it. For him there was no four or five year plan. Without the demand of time he felt no need to persuade or force his point of view, a strange position for a radical and one that makes him easy to dismiss. His idea would not be realized in a great explosion in the pattern of human history. It would rattle itself into the rhythm of time. His was a universal revolution for which the person, not the movement was preeminent. [His was] a poverty that proposed living in a manner that all might live equally well.” Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World by Dorothy Day with Francis J. Sicius, Orbis Books, 2004.

To conclude, I believe that what is done for Jesus Christ has a lasting impact. This is done person to person, with the person’s full permission and cooperation. People should never feel forced to accept or reject services, from us and certainly not from a local government. A well run tent encampment can offer basic services and the freedom to be able to work and keep one’s things safe for a time. We believe God is calling us to speak up and advocate for this.

In addition to this advocacy, we invite you to get to know our other services in the way of Christian discipleship, shelter, food, clothing, transportation and education. Please consider giving to our efforts and volunteering your time.