Uncomfortably close

How does homelessness make you feel?

Feet on city streetI don’t know what your experience with homelessness is. Perhaps you are homeless. Perhaps you’ve never had a conversation with someone who has experienced homelessness. So rather than assume your answer to this question, I’ll tell you mine.

When I encounter a homeless individual, particularly someone that may be panhandling or directly asking me for help on the streets, I feel raw inside. I feel awkward. Embarrassed—for myself, and for them. I feel uncomfortable. I feel sorry for their poverty and guilty of my privilege. I experience secondhand the shame that they may feel, as well feeling ashamed for not stopping and caring about them. I feel annoyed. I feel love, overwhelming me to tears. Sometimes I want to avert my eyes and ignore the individual. Sometimes I want to stop and pray for them and care for them. Sometimes I feel trepidation. I feel compassion yet am uncharitable. I am kind yet act uncaring. I feel anxious yet am insensitive. I feel ambivalence, anxiety, pity.

Perhaps you can relate to one or more of these emotions. I bet I’m not alone in this strange mixture of feelings. Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of these emotions, if you were the person asking for help. I’m pretty confident that these feelings are common, frequent, and familiar to many who may read this. I wonder, though—why? How and why does a stranger evoke such strong and weird emotions from us?

In his book, Moral Man, Immoral Society, Reinhold Niebuhr talks about how we make decisions about love and justice for others in society. He describes how our desire for justice for others varies in accordance with their relational proximity to us. “Love is most active when the vividness or nearness of the need prompts those whose imagination is weak, and the remoteness of the claim challenges those whose imagination is sensitive. Love, which depends upon emotion, whether it expresses itself in transient sentiment or constant goodwill, is baffled by the more intricate social relations in which the highest ethical attitudes are achieved only by careful calculation” (74). Translated a bit, he suggests it’s easiest to give twenty dollars to your child, or to a starving child in a third world country, and that it’s much harder to hand a twenty to the homeless man panhandling on your daily commute. For the first example, love that is near and immediate compels our sensitivities because we are able to see and experience both our relationship with the individual, as well as their need for our help. Their mere relational proximity compels us to extend mercy—even extravagantly or irrationally so. On the other hand, when we are informed of individuals’ needs who are far from our comprehension, the strangeness of their identities and circumstances compels our imaginations to sympathy. But persons whose identities have complex relationships to our own often fail to impact our charitable instincts—say, for example, a fellow citizen of your nation but one who lives many miles from you, or is of a different religion and ethnicity from you, or votes differently from you.

I think that the individuals experiencing homelessness that we encounter in our everyday lives somehow find themselves in this strange desert of love and justice that Niebuhr describes. We hold our families and friends comfortably close, and we hold the victims of famine in Sudan comfortably far from us, but homeless folks in our own hometown are uncomfortably close. Their signs and their families and the places where they sleep and their disability checks and their smelliness are uncomfortable, because they are too close but not close enough for us to truly, deeply care about their bodies and souls. Instead of being an abstract concept capable of compelling your sympathetic imagination, need and hunger appears in front of you, in bodily flesh—but it takes too much time and energy to make the careful calculations Niebuhr claims are required to actually show mercy to these individuals.

When I think about it this way, it seems so strange. Why do we try to contract our existence from those who deserve our sympathy the most? People in your city are hungry. Children in my city are in need. Men in your city are sick. Mothers in my city are in pain. Veterans in your city are homeless. This is not apart from us.

Niebuhr constructs a theology where individuals attempt to comprehend morality both through reason and/or love: but both are insufficient to procure justice in the case of individuals whose proximity resembles that of the homeless population. The purity of our goodwill becomes distorted through our irrational modes of reasoning and our unequal methods for compassion. In this scenario, I think that our physical and perceived proximity to folks without homes in America inspires fear within those of us who have financial privilege. For some reason, the nearness of the pain and poverty is too uncomfortable for us to naturally desire their earthly redemption.

Truly good and righteous intentions may become distorted and even immoral due to this fear of proximity. I agree with Niebuhr. Our desire to distance ourselves from moral responsibility for the poor causes justice to lie far outside of the reach of those facing the greatest injustices—those that are right beyond our own doorsteps.

I’ve been having a hard time figuring out how to end this blog post for a while now, because it feels uncomfortable and unfinished. However, perhaps that perfectly sums up where we are at in the work of ending homelessness: a place that is both deeply uncomfortable and thoroughly unfinished. Perhaps we all need to rest in that space a bit more, and a bit longer, in order to learn together how to make justice for the most vulnerable in America a bit more proximate.

Niebuhr writes, “Nothing is intrinsically immoral except ill-will and nothing is intrinsically good except goodwill” (170). Humbly, I suggest that most Americans do not wish ill-will towards our poorest citizens, but as a society, we do not wish them good-will, either—not how Niebuhr defines it. I hope that dwelling in that suggestion makes us uneasy. I hope it makes us more willing to make more and more careful calculations, transforming the emotions we feel towards our most weak and vulnerable neighbors and friends.

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