Housing, hospitality and hope
Homelessness is an experience of deep and profound poverty that sucks the life out of those who must live into that experience. We try not to refer to such people as "the homeless" or "homeless people" because that labels them. It makes them into something they are not. Rather, they are neighbors, just like all of you, and they have all the problems, joys, and heartbreak that all of you have, except that they have one big problem; they are experiencing homelessness. They don't have a home.
There is a whole system of support built around homelessness, and the Homeless Hospitality Center in New London is a part of that. Our aim is to make the experience of homelessness rare, short, and non-recurring. We serve over 750 people annually in southeast Connecticut, almost all of whom are connected to this region; they were raised here, or they came to be with family, or they moved to this region for work. More than half of our guests are with us for less than two weeks. All they need is a little rejiggering, they get a new job and a new apartment, and they are gone. We never see them again. The rest need a bit more help; some of it financial, some of it motivational. A few will need intensive help to get housed and stay housed. Some of these have been guests with us more than once over the years. It is not uncommon for our guests, like many of their housed neighbors, to be experiencing mental health challenges and to be self-medicating with substances, which complicates their experience.
The guiding principle is "housing first." Housing first says that, while our guests might have many problems or challenges, it is the lack of a home that is the BIG problem. And so, our primary work is to get guests out of shelter and into homes all over the region. We will house them even if they do not have any income, and we work with landlords who are willing to take that risk if we provide some financial support while guests seek employment or other income. The reason this risk is worth taking is that having a home provides a level of stability like nothing else. From the stability of home, other problems like income, mental health, and self-medication are orders of magnitude more manageable than living in a shelter, living in a car, or living under a highway bridge.
The second principle is that we are "person-centered." Being person-centered reminds us that we are working with neighbors: living, breathing human beings who have agency over their own lives. And it is our job to remember their agency throughout the whole process. They get to decide, not us, even if they decide to do things that would not be our own choices or our desires for them. The temptation to substitute my judgment for theirs is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn.
And third, we remember to be a place of hospitality. It is our middle name. We try to create, as close as possible, a home-like situation for our guests, and we call them guests. That's not easy sometimes, but hospitality is what sets HHC apart from other, similar organizations.
One of the traps I would fall into from time to time was seeing homelessness as a problem to be solved. That idea, a problem-to-be-solved, is like rich, velvety chocolate cake to my head. I love the sugar-high of problem-solving. Problem-solving draws on my expertise. It makes me the person other people come to for solutions to their problems, and nothing inflates my head more than this. One of the things I experienced as a submarine skipper was that there was no greater feeling of accomplishment than to be the one others come to with their problems. And playing God turns out to be fertile soil for self-righteous, judging arrogance.
Over time, I felt frustration, anger, and rage at the problem, its intractability, and its injustice. And sometimes, I regarded the people experiencing this problem as a problem themselves. My language changed. "You should do this" or "You need to do that." Homelessness as a problem-to-be-solved became de-humanizing to them — and to me. I was forced to learn a different way of being.
I began to see homelessness more as a de-humanizing spiritual force in the world and a mystery to be entered into — more as a work-of-the-heart rather than the head. And since it IS a mystery, I have to enter into it with the person who is experiencing it. To see it as they see it, to respond to it in the ways that they want to respond. I have to let go of my solutions for them, let go of my "expertise," let go of outcomes. Rather, the heart-work is to scatter seeds — to be a midwife — to evoke change in them that was already there ready to be awakened but lacked the words they needed to help them give birth to a new life with new possibilities. There are completely different emotions that come with heart-work: empathy, heartbreak, hope, contemplation — joy. These are some of the cross-shaped emotions of coming alongside.
So, these are the lessons of the heart: putting the heart in charge instead of the head. The head has important work to do; it is not the enemy. But it needs to work in the service of the heart, or arrogance and burnout will be the result. And putting the heart in charge means some things that the head will find disturbing:
[naviga:li]Giving up the need to be right. Actually, I've given up the whole idea that I even know the difference between right and wrong in most situations. The best we can do is experiment; try something on to see what works.[/naviga:li]
[naviga:li]Giving up on outcomes.[/naviga:li]
[naviga:li]Giving up judgment so that the guest's judgment can prevail, even if I foresee nasty natural consequences flowing from their decisions.[/naviga:li]
[naviga:li]Inviting interruptions to my day, because the Spirit is often present in the disruption.[/naviga:li]
[naviga:li]Saying yes when my head wants to say no.[/naviga:li]
[naviga:li]Setting aside my "expertise" in deference to the expertise of the one who is actually living through the experience of homelessness and knows a million things I will never know.[/naviga:li]
[naviga:li]Seeing hope as a very present emotion instead of some far-off future day that will be better than this one. That form of hope has not disappointed me. [/naviga:li]
Ron Steed recently stepped down as deputy director of the Homeless Hospitality Center This was delivered as a sermon at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Hebron and published in the center's June newsletter.