Serving the Poor: A Social Justice Rationale

Human beings are vulnerable to all types of misfortune which limit their abilities to act.  Our responsibilities to the world do not end with ourselves.  Each and every one of us is also responsible for the “common good”.  We have a duty to help those in need when this is not too costly to ourselves—a duty which is governed by personal discretion.

The persistence, aggravation and very existence of extreme poverty constitutes an injustice.  The poor are often denied fundamental rights as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Hunger is but one face of poverty; discrimination, vulnerability, poor health, mental anguish and lack of opportunities for personal and professional development also are faced by the poor.  The drastic rise in income inequality is alarming, and it seems that with the crumbling of the welfare state the goal of poverty reduction has been largely set side.

The quality of life that our most destitute neighbors endure should be the moral obligation of  our community, and thus, in part, ourselves. When a person is too sick or disabled to work, or a family's house goes up in flames, neighborly assistance and community support can ensure that basic human needs are met.  Similarly, the feeding of those who lack homes is a humanitarian duty and spiritual requirement for many of us.  Moreover, by providing nutritious food to those on the streets, many who cannot adequately care for themselves due to physical disability, mental health challenges or addiction, we make efforts toward self-sufficiency possible.  As Deborah Barnes, a prominent local outreach worker, recently told me,”You can't talk with people who are hungry.  After their stomachs are full, they are much more receptive to our assistance.”

My hope here is to lay out a social justice rationale for providing basic services to the poorest segments of our population, including our neighbors on the streets.  Lately, several local commentators in Santa Barbara have painted a picture of our city as a mecca  for our nation's most “lazy” people who supposedly journey across the country so that they can “sponge” off the abundant services we provide.  Supposedly, our lavish offerings are so magnificent that even people on the East Coast hear about them.  These commentators suggest that Santa Barbara's powers to lure and attract those looking for a “free ride” is so great that they are mysteriously pulled in our direction like iron fillings to a magnet.

A group of city leaders recently went to Santa Monica to learn how they “manage” their “homeless problem” (notice how the visit was framed!).  One of the things this group learned  is that Santa Monica bans the feeding of people in the parks, thus making it harder for people to survive on the streets, either pushing them away from the city or pulling them indoors, where food is accompanied by outreach workers and others eager to track individual progress. Employing an aggressive, in-your-face manner, city personnel keep track of those on the streets, determine what they need and try to make sure they get those needs met.

Now some are talking about banning public “feeds” in the parks of Santa Barbara..  Supposedly, a “get tough” approach which prohibits these food offerings would stop “enabling” (Santa Barbara City Council member Michael Self's term) people who they must see as “addicted” to living on the streets..  Ms. Self has also stated: “We are not here to sustain homelessness.”.  But we are here to love our neighbors, as one ancient prophet proclaimed!

The reality of the Santa Monica model is that they spend many times the amount that we do here in Santa Barbara to help get people off the streets, in part because of they have a lot more revenue available for such services.  Often they are able put people in shelter beds or employ an innovative practice known as “housing first”, an approach in which people are immediately put into housing, and subsequently offered supportive services.  This would be impossible here in Santa Barbara where there are at least three times as many people on the streets as there are shelter beds and there is much less available affordable housing here (Santa Monica has a long history of rent-control).

Several religious organizations, Christian, Jewish and interfaith, are active in serving food to those on the streets of Santa Barbara,. There is a Wednesday night offering at Pershing Park in which four religious groups rotate taking turns serving food.  This activity was  launched and coordinated for a long time by Jeff Shaffer of the Turner Foundation. Also in Pershing Park there is a Sunday morning feed called “The Hank Show” put on by a well-loved preacher.  Finally, there is a Thursday evening feed at Alameda Park which has continued for nine years and is sponsored by Westmont students and the Worth Street Outreach group.  Between 50 and 100 people attend each of these events, and  various outreach workers and other service providers are present to make contact with new people and follow up with others.

A social justice approach to serving the poor comes at these issues from a very different perspective.  The people on the streets are not seen as the problem and the meager services offered are not seen as lifestyle lures.  Rather the problem is seen, to a large extent, as a complex combination of poverty, lack of jobs, inadequate mental health services, and lack of affordable housing.  From this perspective, there are social structures, institutional barriers and systems of oppression are at work which hold down many people.  To advocate for social justice is to join with poor people to change these penalizing systems.

Social justice exists when dignity and respect for all is accompanied by equal access to public services.  Many of our nation's working poor, struggling to subsist on the margins, are victims of injustice.,  Many lack medical insurance, don't have access to affordable housing and are even even hungry.  There are gendered and racial aspects to these issues which greatly increase the problems for women and people of color.

The vast inequalities found among people in our nation are often the outcome of systems of oppression and other unjust structural barriers, as well as greed, ignorance and insecurity.  Many groups suffer discriminating practices in institutional realms as well as interactional violence in the realms of everyday life, including disrespectful and inhuman treatment.

Charitable acts of kindness providing poor people with basic life requirements are essential to their immediate survival.  But charitable acts are best when they are accompanied by efforts to change the situation.  To work for social justice is to move beyond mere charitable acts to struggle with  impoverished people to change their situation.

The motivation of social justice workers is often spiritually grounded, and often accompanied by deep contemplation, prayer and discernment  Most of the world's religions urge us to “love our neighbors” and to help those in need or suffering.  The Jewish prophet Amos, for example, was a social justice pioneer who condemned the greed, oppression and indifference of his society.  Jesus of Nazareth, inspired by this prophetic tradition, told the poor: “You are the light of the world!”

With a crashed economy which is only slowly beginning to get back the millions of jobs lost a couple of years ago, many of us are worried about our own quality of life and reaching out to others less fortunate seems harder.  The interconnection of human life demands that we ensure that all people have access to food, clean water, education and health care.  And the most vulnerable and fragile, including women, the mentally ill, the disabled and the infirm, deserve to be guaranteed shelter.  Unfortunately, my street outreach work has  repeatedly introduced me to “throw away” people whose intrinsic dignity has been discarded by our society.  Many of these people suffer severe mental health challenges, sleep in doorways and pick food out of trash cans!

A spirituality of justice includes solidarity with those who are poor and a willingness to accompany people living at the margins, bearing witness to their suffering. Many of us who serve the poor and marginalized take time to truly listen to their stories, allowing ourselves to be moved and disturbed by the widespread and systematic disregard for life in these times.  For any faith to do justice it must be active out in the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the bruised world.  The “breaking of the bread” performed by Jesus, for example, shows us how we are to offer our lives to others, especially those most in need, in forming true communion and solidarity with the world.  Authentic spiritualities embrace the suffering of the world, and upon deep contemplation, respond to the call to heal and care by taking action.