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Guest Column

Homeless response reflects on us all

Published October 30, 2007


The partners who have conceived of and are working to make "Pinellas Hope" - the proposed tent city shelter for homeless people - into a reality should be commended for their courage and moral vision. Catholic Charities, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, the city of St. Petersburg and donor Harry Stonecipher are moving us all forward in our struggle to be a more compassionate and humane community.

I suspect, however, that many people are not prepared to embrace the idea of another government-sanctioned shelter.

The old debates - about whose neighborhood will be affected, the relative benefits of this or that type of shelter, the costs involved, and whether a shelter will or will not serve to encourage homeless folk to come here or tempt those already here to remain stuck where they are - will probably continue.

What rarely gets debated is whether we have a moral obligation to provide shelter for those living on our streets.

Oftentimes, the moral aspect of this question is framed in terms of what we, as a community, owe to those who live on our streets. I believe this approach can easily muddle the question.

The primary question is this: What constitutes a moral stance by a community with regard to those who suffer and live dangerously exposed lives on its streets? Can a community call itself moral and humane if it does not accept as a fundamental principle that it is unacceptable for anyone to have to live such a life on its streets?

In my opinion, the answer to that question is "no." There is a minimum level of shelter and services that is required to provide people with a safe and sanitary place to sleep. It is not acceptable that anyone be forced to sleep exposed to the elements and criminal predators. It is not acceptable that a lack of access to showers and restrooms causes some to live with poor hygiene or to break the law by urinating or defecating in inappropriate places.

The important point is this: This need not be about what homeless people deserve or want. This is about what any humane, moral society owes to itself. This is about how we see ourselves as a moral community. It is about how we wish others to see us. For those who have faith in God, it is about how the deity sees us.

It may well be that most of us are content to be part of a community that does not provide adequate shelter to all who desire it. If so, the rest of us must accept this fact and endeavor through discourse to change minds. But we should not allow the debate to proceed without everyone being clear about the implications of statements like "not in my back yard," or "it's not our responsibility."

The fact is, there are numerous people living dangerously exposed lives and suffering in dehumanizing circumstances in our back yard right now. This will continue, to a greater or lesser degree, regardless of what we decide to do.

We can choose to provide adequate shelter for those who wish to take advantage of it. Or we can pass new laws and ordinances that make it much harder to be homeless here and vigorously enforce those that already exist and, thereby, significantly reduce the attractiveness of our community as a place to be homeless.

If we choose a stance of hostility and intolerance or refuse to bear the responsibility that we feel belongs to someone else, let us at least be honest enough to admit the truth about ourselves: We are willing to allow people to suffer and die on our streets without adequate shelter. And a failure to provide such shelter makes a statement about our moral character as a community.

I believe that the statement we should make is that we find it intolerable that people are living in our midst without adequate shelter and that we will do what is necessary to provide shelter for all persons who desire it.

We do this for all, not just the "deserving." We do it because it is the right thing to do. We do it because we want to be a part of a community that is humane, compassionate and moral.

It is, in my opinion, really just this simple.

Richard T. Shireman is an outreach specialist with Operation PAR Inc. and a member of the St. Petersburg Homeless Outreach Team.

[Last modified October 29, 2007, 19:57:22]

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