SCOTUS deliberates homelessness

On the side of a large multi-story building in Philadelphia is inscribed the words, “None of us are home, until all of us are home.”

Belonging to a decades-old ministry called Project H.O.M.E., the statement is a prophetic witness to the organization’s wholistic care for the city’s unhoused community. Their efforts include Housing, Opportunities for employment, Medical care, and Education.

Maya Angelou inspired justice for African-Americans with her statement, “none of us are free until all of us are free.” The United Nations has taken a powerful stand on world peace with “none of us are safe until all of us are safe.” With their own mission, Project H.O.M.E. also speaks to the interwoven link between individual and communal lives.

“What effects one of us directly, effects all of us indirectly,” says Sister Mary Scullion, co-founder and director of Project H.O.M.E.

And it’s biblical.

Christ directs, above all else, on two expectations of humanity:

Love of God
Love of neighbor

The catch: We cannot love God without loving neighbor, and love for neighbor will always be lacking without the relentless, authentic, always-pursuing love of God. The greatest commandments are inextricably linked; yet, their connection defies common logic.

In 1 John, the apostle offers wisdom to a community that is struggling with this very thing. People have no idea how to function in a post-resurrection world. The actual Messiah was so different than their ancestors had anticipated for hundreds of years.  And a lot of smart people were trying to explain away the mystery of what they had experienced.

John challenges people to decide whether the resurrection story will retain its meaning. “Is it just something to talk about?,” he asks in chapter 3.  “Or will you own it, as if someone died for it to be so?”

Christ coming to live alongside us allowed God to understand our suffering. The cross became a bridge by which God and humanity could be reconciled, as it was in the beginning. How we care for our homes and our neighborhoods today, therefore, is a measure of our readiness.

Are we ready for God to dwell among us?

Have we hoarded so many worldly possessions that there is no extra room for God to sleep? Is our home so big, or do we own so many houses, that God’s visit will be pre-occupied with the many who lack even one? Are we living our lives and preparing our street corners as if God were moving to the neighborhood? Will God, on arrival, be welcomed to our table or be sent away as an uninvited guest?

A quiet debate, that rose to the highest court of the land this week, tells me a lot about where we are. In 2018, the ninth circuit court of appeals ruled that it was cruel and unusual for Grants Pass, Oregon to issue tickets to people sleeping in public places when there were not enough safe, accessible shelter beds. Lamenting their limitations to move unhoused neighbors along, a bi-partisan group of west coast communities petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.

If upheld, Grants Pass will have sweeping implications on how communities must respond to unhoused neighbors. As jails, police interventions and fines will no longer be a tool in local toolboxes, communities will have to get more creative about alternatives to sleeping outside.

On a given night, there are 250,000 people across the U.S. who sleep in cars, tents, abandoned buildings and other places not meant for human habitation. If Grants Pass is overturned, the court will endorse the ongoing effort of cities and counties everywhere to accomplish their own flourishing by simply moving people out of the way.

At some point we must ask ourselves if the health of our community is measured by keeping “annoyances” of society at bay; or if it is the depth of our compassion for the least among us that makes us well.

I contend that our unhoused neighbors are canaries in our mineshaft. They mark the ways in which God’s creation has gone awry, call attention to the toxicity in our environments, and beckon us back to safety.

If there is no room for neighbors in our own life, there cannot be room for God. If our stomach does not churn at the thought that any of God’s children have fallen out of community, 1 John reminds us that we are far from ready for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

In 2023, Americans spent an estimated $17 billion on the Superbowl. If those same resources were invested in the 653,100 men, women and children who sleep on the streets or in a shelter in a given night, it would amount to $26,000 per person. That’s enough to cover the average nationwide rent of $1,379 per month for every single person for a year.

By contrast, the federal government spends less than $4 billion per year to address homelessness. On average, states spend $1.6 billion annually on homelessness. And this does not account for the estimated $35,000 spent annually on police, fire/rescue, hospital and other public resources to keep just one chronically unhoused person outside. 

Every year, Americans spend $41 billion in unredeemed gift cards, $165 billion on wasted food, $2.8 billion on Halloween candy, and $1.7 billion to maintain empty government buildings.

Why are people hungry?

Why are people homeless?

Why are there countless other human struggles for which we cannot seem to find solutions?

None of us are well, until we are all well. And God cannot dwell among us until that is so.

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action..”

~ 1 John 3:17-18