Like drug abuse, homelessness is one of those issues that draws clear divides in America. Probably one-third of America believes that homelessness, like drug abuse, is a person's own fault and that society has no responsibility to help people who make poor choices. About an equal one-third believe that homelessness, like drug abuse, is usually the result of some kind of social injustice and that society has a responsibility to help these unfortunate people. The remaining third just wish the problem would go away and won't think about it until forced to by a political referendum in Washington or a panhandler on the street corner. Or a teacher in an English class. :-) Joseph Perkins does think about the issue in his essay Homeless: Expose the Myths, and he falls quite clearly on the conservative, individualistic side.
Mr. Perkins clearly believes that homelessness is the individual's own fault. In paragraph 4, Perkins says of the homeless people he observed one night in New York's Grand Central Station:
Some were afflicted with mental problems. Others were drug or alcohol abusers. Clearly their homelessness owed not to economic dislocation, but simply to self-destruction.
For Mr. Perkins, and others like him, homelessness is the result of willful self-destruction on the part of the individual. Though he doesn't say so explicitly in this essay, the conclusion of this attitude is that if people choose to self-destruct, then society should let them. This is similar to the attitude of those who think the best response to a suicidally depressed person is to forget counseling and medication and instead give them a gun and aim it for them. This is an understandable attitude for school boys to take on the play ground, but is it any way to run a country? I don't think so—at least, not a country that I want to live in.
Mr. Perkins is appealing to a common and deep American myth: the rugged individual, the gunslinger who needs no one and who makes it by his own grit, muscle, and ingenuity. It's an appealing vision that we see in the movies all the time, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone.
But there is another vision of how to behave in society, one captured by a figure as big as Clint Eastwood: Jesus. There is no image of Jesus in Scripture that supports the abandonment of the suicidally depressed, certainly no image of Jesus giving the depressed person a gun to finish the job with. Instead, Jesus repeatedly says that he came to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless, and he repeatedly calls us to do the same (see Luke 4:18-19, Matthew 19:16-30, Matthew 25:31-46).
Mr. Perkins doesn't like this image of Jesus; rather, he likes the Jesus who cleanses the Temple (John 2:13-22), the Jesus who kicks ass and takes no prisoners. He likes the Clint Eastwood Jesus, the conservative, gunslinger Jesus. He doesn't like the sissy Jesus who wants to take care of the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the incarcerated. He also overlooks the obvious: only one story about Jesus kicking ass like a gunslinger and many stories about Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry, or that Jesus only attacked the wealthy and powerful, never the poor and weak.
I, for one, just can't reconcile Mr. Perkins' bias against the homeless with the model of human behavior represented by the life of Jesus. Jesus said quite clearly to take care of "the least of these." The homeless are definitely the least of these, so let's take care of them. The question is how. I'll tackle that in another post.