Housing as Human Right: a few Dorothy Day-inspired thoughts
A basic theological conviction: middle class and wealthy Christians ought to know poor people. They ought to know poor people by name, and in ways that foster intimacy and mutual aid, ways that challenge the economic order that keeps some people poor while others have excess. Having excess while others suffer without basic needs is not just a problem of economics, it is also a problem of discipleship.
Those of us with more than we need continue working to maintain our advantages because we do not believe what Jesus said or what he did. He is more figurine to us than the enfleshed God nurtured by Mary who sings the Magnificat.
In those beliefs, I think I am probably aligned with one of my heroes, Dorothy Day. Dorothy is often brought up in discussions of an outlook – you might even say philosophy – called “personalism.” The idea, as she would have expressed it, is about taking responsibility for the well-being of yourself and your neighbors. If there are needs, then, you use with whatever influence or assets you have to meet them. Dorothy often talked about one practical outworking of this: individual Christians having a “Christ room” in their homes reserved specifically for hospitality to the homeless. A practice like that would eliminate homelessness quickly, though I can tell you from years of practicing it myself that it is not easy, and has its own issues of injustice and inequity to work through.
I’ve been talking about such practices in various settings for fifteen years or so, trying to get people to imagine how we might transform our cities and our neighborhoods. I’ve thought about it again in regards to the currently public health emergency and how that emergency is affecting people experiencing homelessness here.
Another minister raised a question with me, one that seems to have been floating around in the city, about opening church buildings (and synagogues and masjids) to people without housing. “Why not re-open our winter shelter program with religious groups as safe places for people experiencing homelessness?”
One might think that the Dorothy Day disciple would think that is a good idea. But I don’t, for some practical reasons like these:
· The volunteers that would make such an arrangement work are mostly be older adults. Two high-risk groups together would be a mistake.
· Churches are generally set-up for large-group gatherings, with little privacy and lots of shared spaces. That’s not what the current scenario calls for, nor is it a great arrangement for living. You can think of this in personal terms: I don’t want to live in a Sunday School classroom and share a bathroom with 15 other people, and neither do you. A church is not a house.
· A better solution is this: thousands of hotel rooms sit empty in Charlotte right now. They can be put to use quickly and comfortably, while providing basic measures of privacy and comfort, plus wraparound services as needed. The resources are available and the rooms are ready. What stands in the way, as usual, is the worship of Mammon.
I'm not only interested in the practical. Just as important to me are these philosophical reasons:
· Housing is a fundamental human right. You don’t ask voluntary associations to secure basic rights – that is the job of government. There is no reason except greed that this society cannot provide housing for every single person. It is the job of government to make that happen.
· You cannot solve systemic problems with charitable bandages. The way we build neighborhoods and housing in Charlotte, which reflects the basic methods of the country as a whole, is fundamentally unjust. It commodifies land, a public resource. Neighborhood construction has long been predicated on racial injustice, from redlining, to Urban Renewal, to gentrification. Pricing is set by a "market," which is a set of regulations that force some people to sell their labor at such low prices that they cannot afford a house to live in at the end of their long work days. All of these historic and economic factors have created a system of housing policies that do not work for large portions of the country. They are unjust.
The solution to unjust housing policy is not religious charity. It is just housing policy that focuses on repairing the harms done by centuries of injustice. Systemic problems have systemic solutions.
(How churches, and individual Christians, work within systems is another question, one I'm doing a longer writing project on right now, but am leaving aside for the moment.)
I am not saying that churches and Christians have no place in the struggle for housing as a basic right. In fact, I think that Christians and churches can play these roles in that struggle, at a minimum:
· Rich Christians can understand repentance as a call to lay down their wealth. Jesus himself is very specific about this demand. He issues stern warnings to those who hoard resources and money. (See Luke 12:13-21, for example.) The early church in Acts had no needy among them because those Christians of means understood clearly that wealth was a communal good, not an individual one. The best of Christian witness in the world, from Basil the Great to Oscar Romero, testifies to this basic truth.
· Use churches as places to organize for and demand the expropriation of wealth from individuals and corporations that hoard it. Those who hoard money while our kindred suffer on the streets are enemies of God's justice (which means that sometimes good church people like me are our own enemies). When you have enemies, you organize to defeat them. That might not sound nice, but Jesus never said to be polite to your enemies. He said to love them. Loving your enemies includes helping them to act in ways that honor their humanity and the humanity of others. [N.b., pastors: this is the best church growth strategy I know. If you start doing ministry in this way, the pews will fill up in no time, guaranteed.]
· One immediate step for those in North Carolina: add your voice to the work of Advance Carolina in petitioning Governor Roy Cooper to guarantee housing for all during the current public health emergency. People cannot “Stay at Home” if they don’t have a home to stay in. Join the chorus in seeking solutions to that urgent problem.