Austin , TX like other American cities, is experiencing greater challenges regarding homeless populations. The city is over 973,00 in population ( 2017 statistics ). At first glance, Austin looks prosperous, busy, driven by high tech ( i.e. Dell, Apple, etc. ) along with being the flagship home for the University of Texas. Austin prides itself as being the music capitol of the world. The clubs on Sixth street beckon adventure and fun. Austin does indeed work hard at keeping it weird !
But on this hot weekly morning, as I walk down Trinity Street from the Capitol Visitors Garage to a downtown hotel, I must confess that I am witnessing some desolation. At the corner of Seventh and Trinity, there are several homeless men and women sleeping up against buildings. One woman is barefoot. Already the temperature is closing in on 80 degrees. These are not conditions where you want to be outside exposed to the elements for long periods of time.
I look up one block north and I see a big downtown church. There are some homeless men who are sitting on the steps. I wonder what this church might be doing for the homeless people who are in their neighborhood.
I’m told that if you visit Belgium that you don’t see homeless people out on the street. This condition would be unthinkable in that country. Apparently, the collective understanding there is that if you see a person in need, you take them into your home. Kind of sounds like the parable to the Good Samaritan doesn’t it ? ( Luke 10: 25-37 ).
Would this ever be operative in the United States? Emerson told us that we needed to be self-reliant. The American tradition has highly valued independence and self-reliance. One is considered valued if they can pull themselves up by their boot straps. The problem arises, however, when you don’t have boot straps and even more so when you don’t have boots !
When government officials openly challenge and provoke the notion of who belongs in the country, then you witness a regression back to the earlier time of the nineteenth century industrial revolution. Here you had officials propose the notion of the “ unworthy poor “ versus the “ worthy poor. “ The later were considered to be unfortunate and destitute and truly in need while the former were perceived as lazy and lacking moral character.
Meanwhile, back out on Seventh and Trinity, the temperature is getting hotter and some of the scenes are getting more desperate.
I am just as culpable as anyone else when I see homeless people laying it the street. I’m usually very busy, as I was the day that I was walking down Trinity Street. I do care what happens to these people, but I was concerned about getting to my conference on time. Perhaps, I assumed the role of the priest who steps around the Samaritan who was beaten up the robbers on the road and was left for dead.
This is not a comforting thought for a person of faith.
I know that I can do better.
I know that society can do better.
Late if the afternoon, after my conference was over, I walked back up Trinity Street to the parking garage. This time at the intersection of Seventh and Trinity, I noticed a big fire truck stopped in the street. An EMS unit and two Austin policemen were politely talking to a woman who was sitting on the sidewalk. She had apparently been staying outside most of the day and she looked like that she was in distress. By now, the temperature was 100 degrees !
I was happy to see that tax payer money ( from the city of Austin and Travis County ) was being put to good use helping and welfare to those who are vulnerable and in need. I also thought about the tension between independence and being interdependent.
For me, divinity occurs when we see more evidence of interdependence. This was the message that I got from the scene at Seventh and Trinity.
A few blocks Back, I walked past some stars engraved in the side walk commemorating famous Texans. I walked by the stars of Dan Rather and Barbara Jordan, and I thought they would be proud of how this city responds to those who are in need.
May we also respond, in like manner, to those who are in need around us.
May it be so.