On the morning of the day I type this, Rev. Larry Rice–a homeless activist (and some say, selfish clown) who runs the New Life Evangelistic Center–was released from the St. Louis City Justice Center. Yesterday, Rev. Rice and three others (one supporter and two homeless camp residents) were arrested for not departing a new homeless encampment, dubbed Integrity Village. City officials were also concerned with potential health issues of having so many people living outside in such close quarters. Or so they say.
But I don’t want to get into it about Larry Rice. That’s exactly the problem. Rice has long been accused of publicity stunts in order to make money off the backs of individuals who are homeless. He’s in constant battles with the City of St. Louis over his view that the city is not transitioning folks off the street and into housing quickly enough. He has gotten two of his other homeless tent cities bulldozed in the recent past.
And that’s pretty much where the media leaves it. Get into conversations with residents with homes, however, and you’ll uncover a very different, deeper, and complicated story.
Of all the major news outlets in St. Louis, I’ve only seen one piece on this story that actually interviewed a resident of the tent city. He said he was proud of what Rice is doing. He said he was glad that someone was standing up for them, and wasn’t going to give up, even to the point of being arrested. Now that’s telling. Unfortunately, the focus of the unfolding story was on Rice, not on the growing issue of homelessness in St. Louis, not the dreadful lack of emergency shelters and transitional housing options, not the demonizing of the poor. Just creating a villain to sell newspapers. St. Louis loves to hate Larry Rice. He sells ads.
Commenters on this story on www.stltoday.com were clearly angered by any attempt to establish the camp, asking other commenters to “let them live in your front yard,” and suggesting these individuals who are homeless stop being lazy and just get a job.
The one comment (that appears to have been taken down) that has stuck with me since yesterday, though, asked if Rice was going to send in a busload of rats next. Because that’s the logical next step. First, homeless people will eat your children. Then, the rats follow.
The ability to distance these kinds of events from the humanity therein surely makes it easier to digest. Once we make even tangential connections between the poor and animals, we can understand them better. They become less intelligent, dirty, lazy, and annoying. They also become a target for our donations, tossing vending machine peanuts through the bars to assuage our guilt at not wanting them to live in a tent in our neighborhood. Even our mayor, on his Twitter account, suggested responding to the homeless crisis by donated nonperishable food items. That won’t change anyone’s life. It won’t change yours, either.
How many folks who are homeless do you know? No, I mean REALLY know? Like you could tell me their name, where they live, how they ended up homeless. Our Christ told us that the poor will always be with us. They ain’t going anywhere. He also told us that whatever we do to them, we do to Him.
When you compare a person who’s homeless to a rat, you’re calling Jesus a rat.
When you avoid a conversation with someone who’s homeless, just because you want to avoid denying her or him your pocket change, you’re avoiding a conversation with Christ.
When you turn a story about humans not having homes into one about their advocate’s wrongdoings, you’re shifting the focus off of Christ.
Does this mean you might have to change your buying habits so you’ll have more money to give away to those who need it more?
What about volunteering a lot more often, like so much that you stop thinking about it in terms of what you do in your spare time, and it just becomes part of what you do and who you are?
Will you have to watch how your words define your thoughts, avoiding “addicts” and “the homeless” and instead using “people with addictions” and “individuals experiencing homelessness,” even though it sounds really liberal and PC?
Because if you don’t sanctify yourself along your own life’s path, you may as well be hitching a ride with a busload of…well, you get the picture.
(Note: Twitter users, continue this conversation with me by following my personal account @kennethjpruitt, and using the hashtag #IntegrityVillage.
Kenneth J. Pruitt is a teacher by trade, and the Director of Volunteer Management & Service Learning at Kingdom House, a 110-year-old social services agency founded during the settlement house movement. He is proud of St. Louis, his adopted home. He tweets a lot these days @kennethjpruitt, where his opinions are entirely his own and where he curses sometimes. His wife is far more attractive and intelligent than he. He loves what you’ve done with your hair.“