A month or so ago, Pastor Bryan told the story of the young man that he and I met. His name was Matt and he was homeless and pretty down and out. I got to meet up with Matt again. His wife was with him this time. And this time, I got to spend some quality time with both of them trying to figure out what I could do to help their long-term situation.
Here is how our conversation went:
“What is keeping you from getting a job?”
“I worked as a mechanic. But you have to have a driver’s license to work at those places. I don’t have a license anymore.”
“What keeps you from getting your license again?”
“It’s not suspended anymore, but I can’t pay the outstanding fines.”
“How much are the fines?”
“Ouch. You need a pretty decent job to save up that much. What keeps you from getting a job…oh wait, I already asked that…Can you just get a state ID first then work on your License?”
“I have been sleeping on friends’ couches for over a year. I don’t have a permanent address or proof of residency to show them. They won’t accept a PO Box. I also don’t have my Social Security Card because it was stolen along with all my other stuff. I don’t have the required documents to get an ID.”
“Do you have your birth Certificate?”
“No. You have to have an ID in order to get a copy.”
“So what can I do to help you get a job in order that you can get a stable place to live?
“I don’t know.”
I felt like I was talking in circles: You can’t get “A” because you don’t have “B or C”. But you can’t get “B” because you don’t have “C or D”. But in order to get “D” you must have “A”.
I needed a flow chart and degree in data analysis to figure out how to get this guy a job!
It shouldn’t be this hard!
Last week (on one of the hottest days of the year), I met a guy (Derek) who was walking from downtown Richmond to the Starbucks near Hull Street and 288 (that’s a LONG walk). He was walking there because he was meeting someone to give him a ride to his new job in Baltimore. Turns out, Derek’s story was similar to Matt’s. He had been homeless for two years. Eventually, someone got him connected to a ministry downtown that he was able to use as a permanent address. They also helped him navigate the system to get his ID. Which allowed him to get a job!
He said the ministry also got him some bus passes to help him get around the city. So I asked him why he was walking. “A bus runs right out to Commonwealth 20.” He got a little frustrated and told me the story…
He showed up at the bus station to take that bus. But apparently, that Chesterfield County Express bus is on a different fare structure, so the passes that he had were not valid for that bus…so they didn’t let him on. So he picked up all his possessions (two huge duffle bags) and just started walking.
It shouldn’t be this hard!
Another time I was leaving Sam’s Club around lunch time. A guy was panhandling on the corner. I rolled down my window and said, “Hey buddy, I’m about to get some lunch (Blaze Pizza nom nom), want to come?” I was blown away by his answer:
“I appreciate it so much. But I can’t leave this spot because if I do, someone else will come and take it and then I won’t have enough money for my motel room tonight.”
Pretty surprised, I asked him, “So you’re saying that you have to choose between a good meal and having a place to stay tonight?”
His response, “That’s the life. If you have a car you’re lucky because you can sleep in that and focus on eating.”
It shouldn’t be this hard!
These exchanges (and a few others) have shed some light on a lot of things. For one, I’m not quite sure the “go get a job” response to requests is as simple as it sounds. It is true, he is paying the consequences for poor decisions. But how long should someone pay for those choices?
Oddly enough, God had an answer for that in ancient Israel. He built in time periods that seemingly made chronic poverty impossible among the nation of Israel. Every seven years, all debts were canceled (even if the debt was taken only a year ago).
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed…whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release. But there will be no poor among you;” Deuteronomy 15:1-2,4 (emphasis added)
God knew that people would make decisions that would lead them into poverty. Bad business decisions. Poor company. Lazy work ethic. Whatever it was. But he commanded generosity and ultimately redemption for the poor.
Verse 11 continues, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”
It gets even more interesting in Leviticus 25, which describes The Year of Jubilee (every 50 years). Among many things, everyone in Israel was able to return to the inheritance/land that their ancestors received. The Year of Jubilee was always the year right after a Sabbath Year (the 7th year where debts are canceled). So in a two year span, you basically get a “hard reset” on the economic standing of everyone in Israel.
God gave a plan for how to avoid systemic (7th year) and generational (50th year) poverty among His people. Not surprisingly, systemic poverty is one of the biggest issues in our society and generational poverty is predictive of everything from school success to life expectancy to incarceration rates.
Are we the nation of Israel? No.
Are we a theocracy? No.
But we are the people of God who have been not called but commanded to take care of the poor. Our system certainly does not do that. What a testimony it would be to the world to see the Body of Christ carrying the burden of the poor.