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  • Jack H. Bender

A Crack in the Safety Net?

She was standing in the bitter cold on the corner between Goodwill and Crazy Horse Restaurant, placing her weight on one foot and then the other. She was holding a cardboard sign that said, “Sleeping in Car.”

I got out of my car and left it running, while keeping my distance from her. “Would you like to warm up for a few minutes?” She said that she wasn’t in a position to trust men from past experience and because of the stories that she had heard.

I walked to the corner where she was standing. There was a container by her feet with a whole deli chicken someone had given her. Julie noticed my glance and said that the chicken would be her food for the day.

She told me that her homelessness was complicated because of medication. She was on pain killers for a compressed disc and another medical condition. Without them, she couldn’t function.

“No shelter will take me because I’m on pain meds. I told the shelters, ‘Here, take my meds and dispense them each day.’ They said they wouldn’t do that. I’ve been to the Holland Rescue Mission, Community Action House and the Salvation Army. There is no housing available. They call me once a month to say that nothing has opened up.”

I told her about the St. Vincent de Paul Center (food bank). I called Good Samaritan Ministries, champions of affordable housing. The receptionist said that no temporary housing was available, but that I should encourage Julie to make an appointment with them.

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Confusion results from such encounters. What we do with confusion is critical.

Below is just a small sample of all the thoughts I had while talking with her. What would yours be?

Is Julie telling the truth or am I being scammed?

Will money help or hurt?

Are shelters unable to handle people on pain meds?

Is panhandling more lucrative than an entry level job?

Is Julie unwilling or too lazy to learn about and use the support systems of our community?

Are the support systems of our community inadequate?

Does Julie have a mental condition that interferes with good decision making?

Is this community doing all it can do to provide affordable and emergency housing?

Do I offer her my home for a month?

The Achilles heel(s) of humans are safety and simplicity. Our first impulse is to resist an encounter with a stranger (safety) and the second is to make uninformed or prejudicial judgments that would “solve” the situation for us (simplicity). Seeking safety and simplicity only reinforces the status quo.

We must “hold” the tension of the conflicts within us. If we hold the tension long enough (while learning more), clarity will emerge about what to do. That’s much better than the status quo of “Sleeping in Car.”


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