Why I Stand with the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless

Yesterday (5/13/10) I attended the Task Force’s press conference to draw attention to the foreclosure of their shelter and to their federal case that is being played out against the city of Atlanta, CAP and ADID. There were a litany of speakers voicing their solidarity with the Task Force and the homeless they serve. I found the most compelling and helpful speakers to be those that laid out the history of city and business trespasses, placing the Task Force’s plight in context, and the final speaker who laid out plainly the current trespasses against the Task Force.

By training, temperament and conviction I am a practical theologian. This means that I have particular commitments. Among others, I am committed to Truth above all else, that is to say, I am not committed to self-preservation or institutional loyalties at the expense of living and speaking truthfully before God. I am also committed to seeing the world through the reality that is God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and thus understand human interaction as not a battle between good and evil, but rather as a muddied mess and mixture; in other words, we are all sinners living in a sinful and historic world. I say “historic” simply to point out that our lives are not constitutive of atomistic moments, but are shaped in overlapping and intermixing known and unknown ways over time.

I am under no illusion that the Task Force is without fault. We have worked with them for 12 years and of course there are short-comings, blind spots and things that I would do or would have done differently. I’m sure many people have thought the same about Church on the Street as they do about other institutions, including government. In the case of the Task Force I would have more strict commitments for those in leadership; I would focus more on mentoring and apprenticeships; I would co-mingle in more obvious ways the shelter and the services, I would structure the practices more around community development, etc. In this most recent public fight mentioned above there is one major thing that I would have done differently: I would not have conceded the terms of the fight. Their “enemies” have made the fight about “effectiveness” and “best practices.” They have made the claim that the Task Force doesn’t measure up to other institutions. All of these claims are at least debatable and in some cases demonstrably false. But that is not the point. The point, as I see it, is that the Task Force, through their shelter, is not trying to be “effective” or on par with other institutions, they are doing something entirely different. The Task Force is trying to develop a community of persons who love one another, stand with one another, and contribute, through their own gifts, toward the common good. A common good, I’d like to point out, that is in sharp contradistinction to the way the common good is understood by their “enemies.” The common good for the Task Force, as I’ve observed it, is not commensurate with the version of the American Dream where all aspire to be richer and more powerful than their neighbors. In other words, their vision is not the way of violence. Rather, the common good for the Task Force has to do with mutual service, respect and responsibility. This view leads to equality and not equalization.

This does not mean that the Task Force is against working and housing and rehab like other shelters; quite the opposite. In fact, they re-house, get work and refer to rehabs daily. But these tasks are undertaken not as ends in themselves, rather as elements of what it means to be a member of a community. For instance, this is why finding affordable housing for their clients (I wish they called them friends) isn’t enough. They must also speak out when affordable housing is being destroyed and the poor are left with no place to go. The city are asking a completely different question. The Task Force, at their best, asks, “how do we live in a world where we can love our neighbors more easily?” The city asks, “how do we get these homeless persons out of homelessness or out of our way?” When the Task Force conceded the primary terms of the fight they forfeited their ability to effectively share their vision with the mis-informed public.

This community the Task Force is attempting to create and live may or may not be ideal, but what they are attempting to do, although having some of the same elements that other shelters have, is foundationally trying to do something different. It is, by its existence, standing in resistance to the status quo and the powers that seek to destroy the vulnerable.

I stand with the Task Force during this time of need because the tactics used against them, if those using them love the homeless, are stupid. First off, any claim that the men living at the shelter can be re-sheltered is ludicrous. The city knows that this cannot be done, regardless of their claims. At best there could be very short term emergency shelter, but even that is a pipe dream. They assume that all these men want to go or will be welcomed at other shelters. This is simply not the case. So there will have to be serious coercion to make them go and to make the other shelters keep them even though they won‘t have the staff to help the new influx of homeless. I assume the fire marshal will also have issues with the housing of persons on cots in hallways as their plan requires. I also assume that the citizenry may also be a bit disturbed when they find out that the city has just put out hundreds of homeless on their streets. Let’s also say that those who want the shelter closed have no ulterior motives other than they want what is best of the homeless; so instead of helping the Task Force develop the facility according to their reasonable plans and blueprints, the city and others cut or disrupt their funds so that their service doesn’t get better but worse (By the way, this is the heart of the federal law suit and complaint).

I stand with the Task Force because they refuse to give up on the most hardened and hurting of our brothers and sisters on the street. This goes for the disillusioned, the physically and emotionally broken, the addict, and the mentally ill alike. Not only do they refuse to give up on them and cast them aside as garbage, they are willing to walk with them, to get their hands dirty as they attend to the darkest and most difficult parts of their lives. In other words, they don’t just pontificate from on high about the struggles and injustices of today’s homeless, they know them and are known by them; they are their friends in the most meaningful and physical sense of the term. Frustratingly, the loudest voices against the Task Force are those that have not spent time at the Task Force with those who are serving and being served there. And these are the ones who claim to speak on behalf of the homeless of Atlanta. (Shamefully, most “news” outlets report what they are told without doing any real investigating at all.)

I stand with the Task Force because they will not allow the powers to forget about or disregard the poor and homeless. This is typically what cities are wont to do. In the best of times cities hide away those that are least presentable to the public, especially the tourist and business public. But even in the midst of what is one of the worst of times economically for the nation and the city of Atlanta, the city still desires to pretend like there is no poverty and homeless problem in Atlanta. At least not on Peachtree Street. This is the art of self-delusion: “If I don’t see them, maybe they are not there.” The city has a plan to end homelessness. They made a few strides toward this goal, but finances and support ran dry. Constructive political will disappeared. Destruction of affordable housing went on unabated without replacing it. An “our way or the highway” arrogance took over which led to disparaging and destroying those who the powers deemed stood in their way. This all has brought us back to hiding our vulnerable so we can pretend we are doing something.

I stand with the Task Force because they are less interested in being “in” with the powers than doing the right thing. This surprises many of the volunteers who come from around the country to work with Church on the Street: even ministries want to be part of the “in crowd.” The Task Force has never backed down from speaking the truth or revealing the hypocrisy of the powers. This has rarely put them in good stead. Someone might not agree with all of their stances, but they can never be accused of kissing up to the establishment or compromising their principles. You always know where they stand.

I stand with the Task Force, not because they are perfect or we always see eye to eye, but rather because they stand up for and with the powerless, the vulnerable, the lonely and forgotten. Jim and Anita Beaty love the homeless and that is reason enough.

Pastor Andy Odle, Ph.D.
Church on the Street

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