Valley Forum: Homelessness is all of our problem

Churches can’t be expected to bear the burden alone.|

Why has homelessness become such a hot-button issue in Sonoma and whose job is it to fix it?

What is so vexing about this issue is that in most cases homelessness is not a direct result of something you personally did or didn’t do. Homelessness and its attendant consequences are symptomatic of larger issues at play. A society that can accept, or at the very least, tolerate elders, children, disabled and addicted people living in the streets, under bridges and in their cars is a society that has lost its moral compass.

Two of the many myths about people who are homeless are either that they don’t want to work, or that they can’t hold a job because there is something wrong with them. That is simply not the case. The majority of homeless people in Sonoma Valley are employed, often with multiple low paying jobs that do not afford access to even the most modest accommodation in our overly inflated housing market.

People who live without permanent shelter are in reality doing the very best they can to survive. Yet we persist in blaming them for their situation, and with harsh judgement we punish them accordingly, saying implicitly or explicitly you can’t sleep here, park here, smoke, drink, eat or relieve yourself here because it is making us uncomfortable.

Friends of Sonoma Valley, homelessness should make us uncomfortable. It should make us so uncomfortable that we insist on directing abundant civic and private resources toward creating lasting and meaningful solutions. If it makes us uncomfortable enough, we might try harder to find a location for a year-round, low-barrier shelter with wrap around mental health and medical services. Our Valley does not currently have such a place and we need one desperately.

If it makes us uncomfortable enough, perhaps we will join with others to advocate for rent stabilization and for low-income housing availability until there are enough affordable spaces for everyone to live comfortably and safely. If homelessness bothers us enough maybe it will motivate us to fight for tenants’ rights so that those who are precariously housed do not lose their shelter and end up trying to survive on the streets.

“...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. “ ~ Last Speech of Hubert H. Humphrey

Homelessness isn’t a problem that any one group, be it civic or religious, can fix alone. Nor is it acceptable for us to excuse ourselves from our responsibility to act simply because the issue is complex and overwhelming. It does no good for people to point fingers and accuse others of not pulling their weight, nor does it do any good to insist that Sonoma Overnight Support and its Haven homeless shelter be moved out of town so that people don’t have to see it. Because, friends, see it we must! We must look homelessness square in the face and recognize the humanity behind the suffering. While we may not be personally or directly responsible for the problem of homelessness, resolving the issue in any meaningful way is going to take serious concerted effort.

“Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members - the last, the least, the littlest.” ~Cardinal Roger Mahony, “Creating a Culture of Life”

While throughout our country and certainly in this region organized religion may be on the decline, it remains true that religious communities have long been the go-to for feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. We owe a debt of gratitude to the faithful communities who do this good work day in and day out. It is however naive and dangerous to believe that the burden of resolving homelessness is the responsibility of religious groups alone. We cannot in one breath strip away the societal value and credibility of religious institutions and in the next breath demand that they be responsible for bearing the burdens of our society’s most intractable problems.

Together, we all own what is right with this world as well as what is wrong with it. In this season of gratitude, it is good to celebrate all there is to be thankful for. But when the leftovers are put away, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Friends, we are all in this together. We are a loving community and we share a bedrock belief that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Sonomans are resilient and brave. Let there be no doubt that we are capable of making headway in alleviating the misery of homelessness, and let us do so in a way that reflects the best of who we are as a community.

Rev. Dr. Curran Reichert is pastor of the First Congregational Church Sonoma, United Church of Christ and the president of the Sonoma Overnight Support board of directors.

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