“God Forgive Us for Making People Invisible” was the title of a sermon I preached about Lisa, a homeless woman in our community who had sadly passed away. Lisa, who suffered from mental and substance abuse illnesses, would stand in front of our church. I would like to think that she was drawn to us because she knew she would encounter people who cared. That was three years ago.
Today, Lisa comes to mind when I think of the homeless-shaming running rampant in our city. Today, if I were preaching a sermon about the homeless situation in our city, I would preach “God Forgive Us for Devaluing and Judging the Sick and Traumatized of Our City.”
Those living on our streets are not neighborhood clutter, nuisances or eyesores as portrayed by some headlines and front pages. They are human beings and New Yorkers just like you and me.
Their illnesses, conditions and homeless status are not crimes, nor are they deserving of dehumanizing treatment that uses them as props to invoke fear and shame. We don’t need to put their pictures on social media to shame them or create apps that locate them. What we need is an understanding that homelessness is a complex issue reflecting the bigger problem of poverty that plagues parts of New York City.
The presence of the homeless on our streets is not a sign of decay and degradation. Rather, it is a sign of rampant inequality, lack of resources and the inability to find adequate housing for the homeless. We need to redirect our thoughts, our efforts, toward channeling compassion and love towards the homeless, not our judgment.
Averting our eyes and placing blame will not make the problem go away. Instead of using technology to shame our homeless brothers and sisters, we should use tools responsibly, such as the 311 app, to report their presence and get them immediate help.
The Mayor’s Clergy Advisory Council, which I chair, is committed to embracing our street homeless brothers and sisters. Clergy, with available space in their houses of worship and community centers, are opening their doors to this population, providing them meals and beds, as social workers provide help and support.
To be our best city, we must be deeply committed to solving the root causes of homelessness and poverty, and work together toward one shared goal of loving our neighbors to wholeness and life.
Rev. Michael Walrond is senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem.