Letter from Atlanta’s Streets: Jail for the Homeless

This is a guest blog written by Matt Smith, a friend and former student of Pastor Andy’s, after he made a short visit to Atlanta and witnessed first hand the plight of the homeless alongside the writings of Dr. King. Matt is a high school teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana.

I am a teacher at a large, urban, multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse high school in Indianapolis, IN. I teach United States History to our junior class and have always been intrigued and interested with the Civil Rights era. We recently studied that era and movement in our class. Being a teacher lends me the great opportunity to read the words and stories of our nation’s past and our nation’s past leaders. I had never read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s book, Why We Can’t Wait, which includes his, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. As with thousands of others, more than likely millions, I was challenged by the words of the great Civil Rights leader.

During this time of the school year, I was blessed with an opportunity to visit the great American and Southern city of Atlanta, GA, the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The purpose of my visit was twofold: to enjoy spending time with an old friend and mentor, Dr. Andy Odle and his family, and to spend a weekend alongside him serving, living and working with the homeless, disillusioned and disenfranchised in the Renaissance Park area. Dr. Odle lives in the same parish as this infamous city park, attempting to live in community with the homeless through an organization called Church on the Street (www.churchonthestreet.com), with the ultimate goal of creating a diverse community that serves and meets the needs of each other.

The time spent in Atlanta with the Odle’s, in addition to reading the words of Dr. King, challenged me to think about the ways in which we combat homelessness. I hope this essay will challenge our urban communities, rural centers and individuals. Dr. King stood up to America’s history of segregation, degradation, negligence and ignorance of its treatment of African Americans after our nation’s history of institutional slavery was ended in the mid 1800s. African Americans’ history of poverty and exclusion from social and economic opportunity and equality was a major topic of discussion in King’s sermons, lectures and writings. Today’s homeless experience these same struggles throughout our country, and in King’s backyard in Atlanta, no matter their color, race or gender. What would Dr. King’s response to today’s state of homelessness be? I believe his words point to a possible response.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The lives of those less fortunate are spent in a daily battle to survive against the struggles and circumstances every day brings. There are struggles to find shelter and far too many experiences that debilitate someone’s will, confidence and sense of persistence, without worrying about the laws society have enacted to rid themselves of the black eye of public homelessness, de facto American refugees in our American cities. For example, in parts of this country, land of the free and home of the brave, it is illegal not to carry a form of personal identification that may have been stolen while you slept, as is often the case with the homeless. It is illegal to sleep in a public area or use restroom facilities in public restaurants. Common decency, human dignity, shelter from the elements and for safety and security: these ideas, concepts, and necessities are all things we consider to be human rights for every person, not just Americans, right? When those things are denied someone, that is an injustice. “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The plight of the homeless in our country is in many ways the bottom extreme of our American value system. In a world filled with negative extremes, such as the political partisanship within our governmental institutions, the economic and financial disparities between the rich and poor, and the housing crisis, it will take an extreme, positive force to impact the homeless community in one city like Atlanta, let alone the wealthiest nation in the world. We are a nation that gladly spends its wealth and charitable contributions helping the world but in many ways, neglects those it can sustain within our own country. Thankfully there were people in our nation’s history like Dr. King, who’s ideas were deemed extreme, yet who creatively sought solutions and strategies to change the inequalities throughout our society. Thankfully there are people today who are taking extreme measures to carry on Dr. King’s calling and continue to champion the cause. Individuals are admirable and can make an extreme impact on an individual level, one at a time. So many people in history had extreme ideas and yet people followed them regardless of the issue and believed in the vision they shared. Maybe there’s a vision, idea or program creating extreme results, like Dr. Andy Odle and Church on the Street in Atlanta, which will change the history of homelessness in his city, in your city, in this country.

Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail was written to show the significance of the action being taken and the moral high ground in which they stood during that time. He stood hand in hand on marches, and sat jailed with his brothers and sisters who were fighting for their rights. The homeless are in society’s jail of public perception and opinion, governmental prejudice and discrimination, personal decision making, personal circumstance and possibly even habitual bad luck. Is a lack of support from today’s society, which views the homeless with a scornful eye and smug expression, an immoral lack of action? Are the laws and ordinances created by government bodies that discipline homeless communities for being homeless and trying to live the best they can immoral? I believe Dr. King would say yes. Unfortunately, Dr. King was taken too early in life to fight for the homeless of today. So who will? You?

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