Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act.
One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.- 

In 1967, the year before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) isolated himself for a couple of months in a rented residence in Jamaica and completed the first draft of his fourth and final book that is entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. By the time he finished his book, poverty, an issue that he long railed against, was denounced forcibly once again. 

When he raised the question “Where do we go from here” within the context of poverty, he was bold enough to say “let us end it.” He wrote, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age” and “The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.” 

What I find even more inspiring is what he proclaimed after he wrote, “There is nothing new about poverty.” He asserted, “What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” 

My sense is that the closer MLK got to poverty, the clearer he could see an end to it. I feel his experience parallels and inspires my own experience concerning homelessness. The closer I get to it, the clearer I can see we can end it.

 

 

For more than 20 years, I have written numerous federal, state, county, and private foundation grants that have been funded after I spent six years as a case manager for homeless individuals and families. I also spent a great deal of time designing and implementing various residential and non-residential programs and projects to help solve local homelessness. 

It was not until I got involved in homeless counts that it became clear to me that we could end homelessness. Homeless counts are required by jurisdictions that receive U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Continuum of Care Program funding. I have helped many jurisdictions design and implement counts and have written many final reports that included recommendations based on the count data.  

While writing up the reports for counties, I would break down the total number of unsheltered persons counted by subpopulations that included chronically homeless persons, veterans, families, youth, seniors, and others. I would then break down the total number of unsheltered persons counted countywide by cities and break down the total number of persons counted for each city by subpopulations.  

For example, a county with 20 cities counted 2,000 unsheltered persons. A given city may have counted 200 unsheltered persons of which 20 were veterans, 30 were seniors, 40 were youth ages 18 – 24, and 50 were chronically homeless.  

I continuously asked myself if a city had the resources to end homelessness for the 30 seniors or the 40 youth aged 18 – 24 that were counted. Asking the same question for all 2,000 unsheltered persons together seemed too daunting. Asking if a city had the resources to end homelessness for 20 veterans or 50 chronically homeless persons who were languishing on the streets did not. 

Inspired by MLK, I have begun to say there is nothing new about homelessness. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to end it. 

MLK wrote in his final book 

“We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” 

The resources that a city has are enough to end homelessness, beginning with one subpopulation of homeless persons such as families, and then moving to another, such as seniors and then to another, such as veterans. 

Flinging a coin to a homeless family, senior, or veteran perpetuates homelessness because this “charitable” act relinquishes the collective responsibility to transform the whole Jericho Road for our neighbors who are homeless. It silences the question that needs to be asked, which is—Do we not have the resources in our city to end homelessness among families or seniors or veterans?  

Flinging coins will allow us to keep a distance and leave the question unasked. Asking the question, will likely bring us closer to the homelessness experiences of others. Remember, the closer we get, the clearer we will see that there are the resources to end it, which is quite contrary to what most of us likely believe right now.

Comments

Thanks for this. This is absolutely the way I am viewing Merced's homeless situation and the idea that I keep out in front of Sierra Saving Grace. I have the opportunity to speak to groups several times a year--mostly church groups or women's groups. The theme I am using is "Homelessness is Not a Hopeless Cause" and I tell people that this is a solvable problem for Merced. These folks have been trying to help with a variety of issues all their lives--racism, refugee problems, drug abuse, mis-treated animals, alcoholism, mental health, crisis relief, etc. But these problems go on and on. I explain the count and show that we CAN do away with homelessness. People are very responsive to this idea, and I always come away with some kind of commitment to help. Several groups have asked me to come back with an update. The idea that is new to me here, and expands my horizon a little, is transforming the road to Jericho. I'll think about that.
The evening before MLK was assassinated he gave a speech entitled “I’ve been to the Mountaintop.” It’s a long speech and towards the end he gave us more to think and reflect on about the Good Samaritan and the Jericho Road. He proclaimed: I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles -- or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" To read the whole speech go to http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm and to hear it go to hear the whole speech go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDl84vusXos and to just hear the Jericho Road part of the speech go to minute 32.
Thanks for this timely and insightful reflection. The human and religious struggle between justice and charity. MLK weekend reminds us of the need for justice while Mr. Trump continues lies, hate, racism, anti life, anti refugee/immigrant etc tweets and sadly policies which targets Gods creation people of need and the great USA that he clearly has an agenda to destroy. We are called to the eternal hope and the struggle for truth life and justice. It looks like this year might be not only marches but nonviolence civil disobedience by more and more of us. Blessings.
While reading and noting your comment, I was reminded of something that I read years ago and weave into my own struggle for truth and justice, especially in the midst of so much intolerance towards others including those who live in poverty and on the streets. In her book the Compassionate Community: Strategies that Work for the Third Millennium, Sister Catherine Harmer, who passed away a couple of years ago, wrote: "If we are not just in our lives and in our actions, if we do not have just systems, if our (society) does not function with justice "toward all" then charity becomes the necessary band-aid, the fix-it, that which tries to make up for the basically unjust reality of the world around us." (p. 17)
This motivates me to go to Santa Monica's city hall and speak with someone dealing with homelessness here. As I am sure you know, this homeless population has grown since the train line has been completed from downtown. I remember writing an article about Robert Cole years ago. He commented that we have the resources, but not yet the will, to get rid of homelessness and poverty. I believe we have to shift our resources and attention as a country from building a war machine to nurturing lives. Under this president, we are doing the opposite!
How true that we have to shift our resources and attention as a country from building a war machine because war is horrific and kills. Those who are in the midst of it all and not fighting try to hide but die, which is true of homeless persons. Prolonged exposure to homelessness has a significant negative effect on individuals that can result in death. Homelessness is much more than the absence of physical housing; it is a tension-filled, trauma-filled, and treacherous-filled condition that often results in injuries and fatalities. People who were homeless have been brought to county morgues where Coroner Office staff determined that they died by electrocution, thermal injuries, hyperthermia, environmental exposure, and blunt force injuries including traffic accidents and being crushed to death by large objects such as garbage bins. I can tell you what I just wrote is true because I asked for and was given the data from a County's Sheriffs Department Coroner's Office and will soon release similar findings noted above. In this County, one person per week for the last five years has been brought to the morgue and determined to be transient/homeless. I have to caution you because of what follows is also horrific and makes me wonder how many coins we flipped to them before they died so tragically. Excerpt from the following article: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/homelessness/death-in-an-amazon-dumpster/ar-BBHs7QO?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartanntp. In other examples, it is the act of trash collection itself that is fatal. A man in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, was tipped out of a dumpster and then run over by a garbage truck. In Fort Worth, Texas, a screaming man had a heart attack after the dumpster he was inside was picked up. More common are situations in which homeless people, sleeping in dumpsters or sheltering from the elements, are collected by garbage or recycling trucks and compacted along with the trash.

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