A homeless shelter may be a refuge for those with no place to turn, but the entrance at its gate comes with a steep admission price: “Turn in your LINK card.” “Make your bed.” “Attend religious services daily.” “Stay sober.” “Be in by curfew.”
At the Harm Reduction in the House 2016 conference which I attended last Friday, two young people who had experienced homelessness could quickly rattle off lists of requirements. These requirements mean that the choice to seek out a shelter or stay under the Wilson Street viaduct requires a careful cost and benefit analysis. If staying out late with friends or smoking marijuana gives you the comfort you need in the face of loss and trauma, the trade-off for four walls and a roof may not be worth it.
Those of us who attended a lectionary-observant church last Sunday probably heard a story about Lazarus, the poor man covered in sores who lay at the gate of a rich man living in luxury (Luke 16:19-31). The geographic distance between these two men was small. Yet they lived in completely different worlds, separated by vast economic and social distance. The gate at which Lazarus laid enforced this distance.
It is easy to see injustice in the vast distance between the rich man and Lazarus. More insidious is the injustice that stands at the gate that separates those experiencing poverty and problematic drug use from their ostensible sources of support. This gate presents a stumbling block to those who would enter. A space cannot truly be a refuge if it requires that one to sacrifice the consolation one knows best.
The restrictions that determine who can be helped and how can also present a considerable stumbling block to those who would go out into the streets, seeking to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Several speakers at the conference, including the Rev. Alli Baker, Co-Pastor of Wellington United Church of Christ, said that they regularly found themselves breaking or bending the guidelines of service provision in order to serve the person in front of them. They would let a woman in after curfew. They would suggest a man go to the hospital in order to have a warm place to sleep.
As someone with a social work degree, I know that rules and regulations are vital for successful and ethical service provision. As a student of the Gospel, I also know that living out the radical love of Jesus means breaking rules when they conflict with the divine mandate to heal and to give life. This can mean going against protocols. It can mean taking the risk of losing your job. As speaker Rabbi Menachem Cohen, member of the Youth Outreach Team of The Night Ministry, pointed out, this risk pales in comparison to the job insecurity faced by those he works with.
To follow the Gospel of Jesus means to embody the living presence of a God who lies with the one making her bed in Sheol and who welcomes the one who has fled to the farthest limits of the sea. In that respect, harm reduction work is gospel work. To engage in harm reduction is to reduce barriers to service for those who need support. It means considering individuals who cannot fully renounce drug use as worthy of having their basic needs for housing, food, and respect met. It is work that places relationship above protocol. As such, it will always call for occasional rule-breaking.