Tuesday, June 21, 2011


In seminary, I volunteered at a local shelter on Thursday nights for "foot clinic".  Each Thursday homeless from around Atlanta would sign up for foot washing. Then in the evening, we would gather for a large shared meal together (volunteers, homeless, and permanent residents at the shelter) and eat dinner together. Then we would clean up and re-set the room for foot clinic (while the medical clinic was held in another room and had med school residents to run it).

Foot clinic was run by a nurse named Hannah whose parents ran the shelter. The rest of us came from a variety of trades and followed her instruction.  After walking miles each day in the heat and the wet all over Atlanta (often services are strewn out all over town making a long trek necessary to get paperwork filed or whatever else might need to be done during the day...including eating and finding public bathrooms), feet get nasty.  So, we would soak their feet in a hot soapy water bath and then we would clean their feet. We would scrub callouses, cut out corns, trim nails, treat foot fungus, then dry and lotion their feet, and give them 2 pair of new socks to wear.  

I learned a lot in my 6 months at the clinic and had my eyes opened about issues surrounding homeless.  Not the least of which is that in dealing with "the homeless" you aren't dealing with an issue, you are dealing with people.  As I sat and cleaned feet, I would get to know the men and women with whom I shared that sacred holy upper-room act. I would hear about their lives and their struggles, which included being arrested for vagrancy when they had simply been hanging out at a park or a side walk or wherever.  I would become very frustrated at their circumstances. It always felt like such a waste to put people in jail for simply trying to be somewhere.  
And now, five and half years later, I am on the other side of the story.  At various points, I have shared about our ministry with the homeless at the church.  In general we have a good ministry that goes smoothly.  We feed 25-45 folks each Sunday and provide showers, clothes, toiletries, Bible study, worship, and fellowship.  In the early days, we allowed folks to stay on the property at night, with the understanding that the shelters didn't always have enough room, and that for some, even when they did have room, folks had to come in "dry" (meaning sober) and for many folks on the street, that was too much to ask.  

We liked being able to offer a safe dry place for folks to stay (Even if it was still outside) and worked to help various folks get into housing.  (of 20 regular folks who stayed on the property at different times, 5 got into full term housing...we saw those as pretty decent odds).  But then we started to have trouble.  Folks were drinking on the property, doing drugs, selling drugs, having sexual encounters, and even breaking into our buildings, and that was it.  We said that was completely unacceptable and had to change the rules and practices at the church.  There was a small cohort that didn't really care what we said and insisted on staying on the property anyway.  They would just come later and later so that we were less likely to find them there and and send them on their way. 

Well, those folks eventually moved on and now we have a new cohort of 3.  Sometimes they act as allies, and other times they antagonize one another and even call the police on each other.  For months, we've been fighting them. They break into buildings and stay the night. They refuse to leave the property. They smoke in buildings; they have even left urine cups behind couches when the bathroom is mere feet away.  It's been exhausting.  It hasn't mattered what we say or who says it.  It doesn't even matter if we call the police (mostly b/c the police refuse to do anything).  It really has been a frustrating situation from all sides with no real positive outcome in the foreseeable future.  We've tried getting them to go to a shelter. I've tried to get mental health help and whenever I set up an appointment, they fail to show up.  

I still don't really think arresting them is the *best* option. But allowing them to stay when they refuse to respect the rules or listen to anyone at the church isn't really an option anyway.  I just wish I had a good answer...

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