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Shawn Vestal: The birth of Jesus reminds us we should provide shelter in our community

December 25, 2018

I met Zach as he slept under the viaduct, trying to stay warm beneath a pile of clothing.

I asked him where he spent the previous night. He pointed down the street. I asked him how he was staying warm at night.

He said he wasn’t.

I met Kristine as she was walking out of a downtown alley, with her belongings in a rolling bag. She’d been homeless for 15 months, staying in a shelter, and was hopeful that she was about to land an apartment. She talked about her daughter, living in Spokane Valley with her father, and her sense of shame over her homelessness, which grew out of her drug addiction.

I’m thinking today of Zach and Kristine and the birth of Jesus Christ in a shelter for animals, of the Nativity, of the manger and the inn, of the relationship between the people sheltered in these very different places – house and barn, human rooms and animal huts. I’m thinking of the effort to help, to provide shelter, even when it would seem there is no more shelter left to give.

I’m thinking today of the uncountable, undeserved blessings of my life, and the uncountable, undeserved hardships that many people living on our streets will experience, on this day as on any other.

And I’m hoping that we, as a community, as a people, can hold in our hearts a sense of their humanity, of our shared humanity with them, and not retreat from the duty to give them a roof and a warm space and the help they need with the problems that most of us – safe and cozy in the inn – can’t even imagine.

I met Marty as he panhandled for beer money. He’s the kind of homeless person who tests the empathy of a lot of folks. He’s not really trying to beat his bad habits – he’s getting the daily alcohol he says that he needs. He’s not getting his life in order or taking job skills classes or going to treatment. I’d like to think he might someday.

I’d also like to think his decisions, his flaws, his failings don’t put him outside the realm of our compassion.

Sometimes, when I hear people talk about the homeless, I wonder.

I met Tom one cold morning as he participated in a volunteer project. He told me he was addicted to heroin and had beaten it, and he had a pale, wiped-out look, a distant gaze, as though he had gone away to somewhere deep inside himself, where it was warm and safe.

Over the past few months, we’ve all seen more people like Marty and Tom, more people like Zach and Kristine, seen more visible homelessness downtown than at any other recent time in my 20 years here. More people on street corners, more panhandlers, more piles of blankets and clothes hiding human forms under the bridges and in doorways.

It’s our piece of a regional epidemic, with even worse scenes playing out in Seattle and Portland and throughout the West.

The consequences of our current crisis – a severe lack of affordable housing, an incredibly tenuous economy for those at the bottom, a break in the 24/7 shelter commitment, a dearth of the kind of extensive and, yes, expensive services that might substantively help those who suffer from mental illness, addiction and extreme poverty – has produced very different reactions in Spokane.

Some homeless people and their advocates, angry over the treatment of the people who camped at City Hall and their sense that the city has failed to address this problem seriously, began demanding change and holding demonstrations. And yet it’s not remotely simple, this problem, and it should be acknowledged that there are many organizations working diligently to provide services for the homeless, and who have, through those efforts, helped hundreds of people.

And I’ve heard from many others who say the current problem is a byproduct of too much generosity. Too much giving. Too much help for the helpless. This argument supposes that by providing homeless services, we have created more homelessness or attracted homelessness from less generous places.

Spokane, I’ve heard more than once, is too generous for its own good.

Today, I’m hoping we all can find that part of Spokane’s true and deep generosity that doesn’t help desperate people with a hard heart. That doesn’t help others only once a checklist of conditions are satisfied. That clothes and feeds people who need clothed and fed, in the spirit of the man whose birth is celebrated on this day, and that remains committed to a compassionate response.

I’m hoping we can be as generous as we are called by the problem to be. That we can view the homeless as our fellow human beings, not as retail obstacles or nuisances on the sidewalk as we head for another grande caramel macchiato. I hope we can do this even if it’s not easy, even if it’s frustrating, even if we find that those without a place to sleep are not conducting their lives in the way we admire.

Even if our inn is full, I hope we don’t stop trying to offer shelter.

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