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Still Struggling 7: The Problem of Reputation

September 28, 2010

One of our commenters (and parishioners) just brought up a very important point that has been lurking in the shadows of our on-going conversation about how to minister to the homeless folks who have been sleeping on the Cathedral’s front stoop: the problem of reputation. The state of Florida, the city of St. Petersburg and the St. Petersburg Police Department all have a reputation for being inhumane, even cruel toward the homeless. And we certainly don’t want our church, St. Peter’s Cathedral, to be tarnished by association with those seemingly “demonic powers and principalities” (to borrow a phrase from the apostle Paul).

As our commenter puts it:

Orlando, FL was voted the “most unfriendly” city to homeless folks in the US a few years ago. And not too long ago, our own PD chopped the tops off of the tents of the homeless [how embarrassing for us all]. With all due respect to Ofc. Linkiewicz, I think we have a problem in our fair city and it’s easier (for our PD anyways) to just roll all homeless people up into the ‘unmotivated bums’ category.

Regardless of what the specific statistics are according to the City, and despite the fact that we’ve had way too many Bible-thumping “Christian” mayors, our City hasn’t acted very ‘Christ-like’ when it comes to this particular issue.

So, of course the PD is going to tell us, “keep them off your church stoop,” they’ll drink and fight; that’s the same excuse they used the last time the box-cutters came out.

This ain’t pretty, no matter how they want to ‘spin it’.

The link he has there is to a YouTube video from 2007 of the St. Pete Police slashing tents of homeless folks with box-cutters, and yeah, it isn’t pretty. But I don’t think it’s the whole story either. My sense–particularly since talking with St. Pete PD homeless outreach officer  Rich Linkiewicz, as well as reading and talking to others about his work and the work of other St. Pete police officers and social workers to help the homeless–is that our city and police department’s reputation for inhumanity to the homeless is deserved on the one hand, but also overblown somewhat.

There definitely seem to be some in the city government and the police department who, as our commenter puts it, have not acted “very ‘Christ-like'” and who would like nothing better than “to just roll all homeless people up into the ‘unmotivated bums’ category.” But not every police officer and not every city government official is that unfeeling toward the plight of the homeless. And many of our local civil servants are working very hard every day to help the homeless.

Our commenter even quotes the St. Pete PD’s Ofc. Linkiewicz saying that liability concerns (like the ones we’re worried about here at the Cathedral) should not be our primary worry as Christians. “You think Jesus was worried about liability?,” says Linkiewicz. “Let’s do the right thing and get these folks off the street.” Good point! And our commenter also links to an article that discusses the work of Linkiewicz and other city employees who are doing a great deal (probably more than most churches or church-related organizations) to help the homeless.

So I think it’s overstating the case to characterize  “the city” or “the police” as a monolithic “they,” unified in its cynical, mean-spirited, “un-Christian” stance toward the homeless. When our commenter points out that, “We’ve run ordinances to keep them off benches, not pan-handle, we’ve kicked them out of virtually every neighborhood in this city because nobody wants them in ‘their backyard,'” I think he makes an excellent point about the problematic history of our city and police department’s often poor treatment of the homeless and the need for us all to work to turn that around. And I particularly appreciate his use of the inclusive “we.” Because I think that we are all a part of this problem, and we all need to take responsibility for it.

But when our commenter sums up the city government and the police department as a scary “they” and makes guesses about “their” motives, stating, “they just don’t want them [the homeless] here,” then I feel the need to say:

Hold on–isn’t that taking it too far? What about Ofc. Linkiewicz and others who are working full time to try to meet the needs of the homeless? Yes they need help. And yes, I’m sure some city employees and police officers “just don’t want the homeless here” but why lump them together with those police officers and city employees who do want to help the homeless, whose jobs are to help the homeless?

One way or another, we’re going to need to work with the police and the city government if we’re serious about helping the homeless. So we might as well start looking for the good in those institutions. We might as well start forging links to those elements of our police department and our local government that are already working toward the same outcome we crave–humane, merciful and loving care for our homeless neighbors.

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