This post originally appeared on The Mustard Seeds Blog at Saint John’s Cathedral.
The Missioner-in-Residence job at Saint John’s is a constantly evolving thing. Some of its aspects are more visible than others—the Mustard Seeds blog, for example, or leading classes and the odd Dean’s forum. Then there are the slightly less visible aspects, such as The Imitation of Christ Book Club and working with our partners at The Saint Francis Centre, MetroCaring, and The Network Cafe.
One of the most important aspects of this position, however, is all but invisible, except to those who run the Welcome Centre during the week. The Missioner-in-Residence is the first point of contact for anyone who either calls the Cathedral or walks through our doors looking for help (we’ve always received those looking for help of course: this is not a new thing). All this really is hidden—and I’ve been told by a few people that it would be worth writing about what this part of the job looks like, not least in order to show what these encounters at the ground level tell us about what’s happening in our city.
I’ll begin by explaining the title of this post. In early January, a homeless couple came to a weekday Eucharist in a state of crisis. They had been living out of their car, affectionately named Bessie, which had been towed the night before—along with all their possessions. The immediate cost of retrieving the car was around $280, with $40 added on for each day that this fee wasn’t paid. They obviously couldn’t pay, not least because they had just spent what little money they had on repairing Bessie’s engine. As such, they stood to lose both their only source of shelter and all their possessions. To make matters worse, the wife was disabled and diabetic, so getting around town was almost impossible (I have since learnt that there are all too many stories of companies deliberately towing legally parked cars which are full of possessions—the reasoning being that the owner of the car definitely won’t be able to pay legal fees to contest the matter and likely won’t be able to pay the fee to recover the car, meaning that at the end of the day they will have a car and plenty of second hand goods to flog off).
Fortunately, we were in a position to help this couple, so they came in later that week to settle matters. Soon after they arrived the husband had to leave for about an hour and a half to meet with a state agency, so I stayed with the wife to make sure she had some company. Over the course of our conversation she told me the bulk of her story, which is obviously too personal to repeat here.
At one point, however, she referred to the community of people she knew on the streets as the family of the double-damned. When I asked what she meant, her words were more or less as follows (this is a from memory, but it’s close enough to word for word): ‘everyone in the world is broken or messed up in some way, and the most important thing about being broken is finding a space where you can heal. But a lot of us who are on the streets, the ways we’re broken aren’t acceptable. Like, this person’s not greedy, which would be fine; they’ve become an addict. This person doesn’t fear insecurity; they’re schizophrenic. And so a lot of us are damned if we are the way we are, because we’re told we have to be different to get to the places of healing. But then we’re damned if we act like people we’re not, because brokenness doesn’t just change like that—so even if hiding who we are gets us to a safer place, it always comes back, because it’s not been dealt with. Things can’t heal if they’re hidden, so what we hide just becomes stronger. So we’re damned if we don’t hide who we are and we’re damned if we do: double damned.’
I was so struck by this at the time that I asked her permission to repeat those words and a little of their context. Soon after this I was able to get them up to the place where Bessie was being kept, and now I’ll likely never see them again.
I’m beginning with this story in order to set the context for most of the encounters which I have during the odd hours of the week. Most of the people I meet are double-damned in some identifiable way; not necessarily because their existence is taboo, but because their crisis is constituted by their being faced with self-defeating choices. The best I can do, meanwhile, is try and help with some immediate problem. I can’t really make anything better—I can just prevent things from getting worse tomorrow, then add another referral to the long list which they’ve almost always already been given, in the hope that it might help them find some route out of desperation.
Within the setting of this overall context, then, here are some specifics about this work.
First—there is no way of predicting who will walk through the door or when. Some weeks no-one calls or checks at the welcome desk. Sometimes my phone will ring three times in a morning and I’ll get back to find a fourth person waiting. Sometimes the people calling are what we might think of as ‘stereotypically’ below the poverty line (though to even think in these terms is to have already distorted the reality)—it’s just as likely, however, that they are ‘stereotypically’ middle-class. Sometimes a person will be lucid and business-like; to give one example of another time, I once spent just over an hour with a very vulnerable young person coming down off a bad heroin trip. And sometimes we’re able to do something, sometimes not. The worst thing about not being able to help is not an angry response: I’ve only ever had one occasion when a person has reacted angrily to the words ‘we don’t have the resources to do what you need.’ The worst is the look in a pair of eyes which have heard this before, again and again, and are quickly losing hope.
Second—90% of the time, we are already a last resort. When someone calls the Cathedral hoping for help, it’s because we’re on a long list of churches of which they’ve already called half. And they’re only calling churches because their particular crisis cannot be met by the non-profit organisations which they’ve already called. By the time they call us, we’re usually looking at days and hours before things collapse. We’re looking at evictions, being thrown out of long-stay motels, health-care bill defaults which can take place tomorrow. I’ve had a family walk through the doors who lost their apartment the night before and simply didn’t know where to go. I’ve had single mothers who, on being moved to a month-to-month lease, hoped that they could make up the $300 rent increase over 30 days, and found it impossible—after all, having to work, then care for their children, and then go to the effort of finding extra money can eventually leave you too drained to manage any these things (another type of double-damned).
Third—the majority of cases revolve around rent and accommodation. The most common call I get is from mothers who can no longer afford their rent, or who have found a cheaper place but don’t have enough to put down a deposit. Otherwise, it’s looking for a hotel room for a night because shelters mean separation (serendipitously, I had two cases, including one family, who needed some form of shelter the night before the blizzard. I had no idea that we’d have four feet of snow the next day, and was incredibly grateful that they happened to call at a time when there was help to be given).
As for the night after? This brings us to the fourth specific—we can only give financial help once. I’ve been hearing that Church emergency aid funds are running out all across the city. Rental assistance programs are depleted. There are too many people being crushed by insurmountable need. The city’s non-profits are overstretched and under-resourced as it is, and churches citywide don’t have the resources to support even the relative few who get to the point where they’re desperate enough to call us. And so there are things which we can’t do and principles I have to stick to, knowing that if I don’t, it means turning away the person who comes in tomorrow. I always make this clear to whoever I’m able to help. All the same, more than understandably, I’ve had fathers, mothers, come back and beg for one more night, one more month—and I’ve said no, without ever being able to articulate what seems to be a good enough reason why. And so, in many cases, I’m faced and they’re faced with the fact that the best we’re able to do is give them a small amount of time—and when that time runs out, if things haven’t improved, the crisis will have only been deferred, not defeated.
Which then brings us to the fifth specific—at present, with the services out there, the resources we have, and the conditions imposed, there is no solution to most of the problems with which we’re faced. It’s almost impossible. And it’s here that the image of being double-damned really comes into force. Imagine being told that to receive a certain benefit you have to show that you’re searching for a job—and then imagine that without that benefit you have to spend half of your day finding food and half of your day making sure that you have shelter. Imagine that in order to pay any rent and feed your children you have to work two full time jobs, but that to pay next month’s rent you have to be looking for a better paying job as well. Imagine that you’re losing sleep either from fear or because you’re resting on tarmac, night after night, but you need to be your best-self day after day just in the hope that you’ll be able to survive tomorrow. Imagine that you are feeling the ground fall out from under you, that you’ve had your children taken from you because you could no longer care for them, that every source of hope and joy which you had previously known has dissipated, but you can’t drink the pain away or lose yourself to drugs or you’ll be turned away from every shelter in town. Imagine you have a UTI but no access to a public bathroom or money for a coffee to use the one in Starbucks, knowing that urinating in the streets is a criminal offence and that even the slightest blemish on your record can make it impossible to find meaningful employment. Imagine people walking past you and either ignoring or avoiding you all day, when this is your life. And then imagine all of this and being told, by a British man in a beautiful building who will sleep in a warm home that night, that this is all we can do. There are rarely any real choices here—just the fear that whatever you do nothing will change, and that whatever option you pick you may well be crushed either way.
As things stand, with uncontrolled rent-increases and unaccountable landlords, with a minimum wage which is ignoring the inflation caused by the influx of outside money coming into this city, with ‘the number one place to live in America’ label attracting people on well paid jobs who are driving prices up and people out, and with individuals and families being forced to choose between housing, food, and health-care—there is no solution. The only solution would be the dissolution of the conditions which ground these problems in the first place. And again, we are all double-damned by this, because the end result is the same in almost every case: barring luck, the best we can hope for is a deferral of the fall. It is, of course, better to defer this than not, and there are occasions when deferral does make a real difference—but these are rare occasions, and the stakes are too high for this rarity to be even close good enough.
Which leaves the sixth and final specific—that this work is impossible without the development of a human connection, but that the development of this connection can make the work terrifying. Underlying any material help which might be offered, there has to be a spiritual companionship, even if only for an hour. This means sharing a tuna sandwich with a young schizophrenic gentleman (who, on mentioning his diagnosis, remarked that he didn’t think he was all that different to most of us, saying ‘look, all my friends are here in my phone!’ as someone walked past us texting). It means spending an hour with someone coming down from a bad high, or with someone who can’t stand up because of the weight of despair pressing down on them. But this means listening, mourning, talking, and laughing, all the while knowing the impossibility of their reality. And so it means being human in a context the horror of which strikes right to core of all human sensibility.
In some ways, of course, this is the best part of my job, as it gives me the opportunity to encounter people who know more of grace than I’ve ever learnt. All the same, in other ways it is the part I fear most, to the point where I sometimes find it hard to pick up my phone, just in case I have to say ‘we can’t help’ (I’m aware of the irony here). It is the best because it is an opportunity to talk to individuals who are used to being ignored and to engage with them as living, breathing, human beings, possessed of inalienable dignity. It is to be feared because, more often than not, this effort in the name of dignity isn’t even nearly enough on its own, and so it is ultimately undermined by realities which I either cannot or am not willing to change.
So, this is a small part of the less visible work of the Missioner-in-Residence—working with Denver’s ever growing hidden population to try and delay what looks like the inevitable (and I would like to explicitly raise up the amazing work of those who run the Welcome Desk in helping with all of this. We couldn’t hope for a kinder, more compassionate group of people).
To conclude with some practical notes: if you ever find yourselves talking to someone in need of assistance, the best referrals I know are Family Promise for families with children under 18, MetroCaring for those who need food, The Delores Project for women, Urban Peak for youth, and the Network Cafe for people looking for community. Most people on the street or close to it (though not all) will already know The Saint Francis Centre and The Gathering Place, as well as the larger night shelters, but it’s worth mentioning them anyway. In terms of material assistance, taking the time to buy a sandwich and spend half an hour or so in conversation is a good way to go (and this means active listening and personal vulnerability). Asking if an individual wants to pray can also be a good idea (though this question must be asked carefully)—it is my experience that many individuals in the worst situations hold the kind of faith which puts my own faith in the omnipotent comforter of mainstream Christianity to shame. And if you have any questions about any of this, please do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, if you do find yourself talking to someone in this kind of context, be sure to ask their name, be sure to remember it, and be sure to use it. As Mother Elizabeth-Marie’s post last December made clear, there is almost no more powerful question. I haven’t used any names in this piece (except Bessie’s), but every person I’ve mentioned has a name, and I remember all of them. Names remind us that poverty is not an abstract phenomenon. ‘The poor’ are not a faceless mass of people down on their luck—they are the family of the double-damned, crushed by the contradictions which we force upon ourselves and our neighbours. This family is the beloved of Christ, for whom Jesus died upon the cross. Indeed, it seems to me that this family is the true body of Christ, with whom he is crucified each and every day.