I went to the library the other night to return a book. While I was there I saw several acquaintances from the local weekly overnight shelter across the street. They didn't recognize me--didn't acknowledge my wave--and I was in a hurry (and a little embarrassed), so I didn't interrupt them to introduce myself. As I made my way back to my car I noticed some local kids skateboarding their way to the park that some of these homeless folks were using as their base of operations for the moment, and just for a moment I thought, Here comes a clash.
Public parks are often the base of operations for homeless people and teenagers; they're centrally located, easy to access, comfortable--even featuring benches and tables--and generally free to the public. But public parks serve different purposes for different clientele. Lilacia Park is next to the library, where homeless folks can get out of the rain, access information about jobs and services, check their e-mail and read, even use the bathroom. Across the street from the park is the train station, which dramatically increases the reach of the homeless community, taking them into Chicago or out to the outlying suburbs, and between the rotating sites for overnight shelter. A short walk from the park is a social services office with job referrals and other resources. Public parks like Lilacia are a social utility for homeless people, a nerve center for their daily activities.
Public parks like Lilacia offer kids a place to hang out, recreate, skateboard, meet up with friends or get away from their parents. Parks have a similar social utility to kids, but nowhere near the strategic import that homeless folks assign to them.
Here's something to chew on. Homelessness requires a completely different fluency from what a friend of mine calls "homefulness." Different ways of perceiving and organizing visual cues, different ways of calculating value, different locuses of activity, different ways of getting from locus A to locus B--these and other cultural markers distinguish homeless culture from the homeful cultures that occupy pretty much the same space. And when two such dissonant cultures attempt to occupy the same space, clash is almost unavoidable. And when clash is unavoidable, power wins.
I doubt anything came from the convergence of kids and homeless adults on that same park. I have no way of knowing, to be honest, because I was heading back home to my own locus. But I gave that moment a lot of thought anyway, and it's helping me to think differently about how I approach ministry to homeless folks. It's essentially crosscultural: I have no idea what it's like to be homeless; it requires a fluency that I haven't achieved. I wouldn't know how to get from one shelter to the next. I wouldn't know how to get a bus pass or voucher, how to get a phone number to give potential employers, how to do anything, really. Homelessness as a circumstance comes to people for any number of reasons, from folly to bad luck to personal calamity. Homelessness as a way of life is learned behavior--a coping mechanism in the face of a circumstance. I'm reminded of the couple I met during their first breakfast in a homeless shelter: I can only hope that some kind, seasoned homeless person showed them the ropes and helped them to grasp the parameters of their new culture.
As for me, in my encounters with homeless people I need to be less confident that I can solve their problems (which is to say that they could solve their problems with a little creativity and initiative), and I need to be more alert to the realities that press in on them as they make their way through each day. I need to seek to understand, which is a way of loving.