A Face to Face Confrontation with Homelessness

by Rebecca C. Asedillo

Photo by Paul Jeffrey, GBGM
Mr. Bill Whitner, 47, eludes the stereotypical profile of a homeless person. His father was a Baptist minister and according to him, he grew up in a happy and loving family. He has an M.A. in Psychology from Baylor University. He raised a daughter and sent her to college. He managed a business whose assets grew from $31,000 to $4 million. He doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs. But he has been homeless twice since 1989.

"I'm not anything special. But my life situation has been such that I ended up on the streets," Mr. Whitner said. He acknowledged that his homelessness has been due to his reaction to certain sets of circumstances that he "handled very poorly." Not too long ago, Mr. Whitner suffered a succession of losses: first, his best friend died, followed by his father, sister and mother.

Speaking to a group of United Methodist deaconesses and home missionaries in Washington, D.C. on November 11, Mr. Whitner also shared about his experiences in Vietnam where he served as a combat medic and behavioral specialist. Returning from a patrol mission one night his exhausted platoon returned to the barracks. No sooner had he slumped on one of the bottom bunk beds when another soldier arrived and got him to move to the upper bunk, which he did. In the morning, those who had slept on the top bunks were horrified to discover when they woke up that the men who had slept on the lower bunks had been murdered by having their throats slit.

Mr. Whitner and Mr. Michael Stoops, Director of Field Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless were among the speakers at a seminar on economic and environmental issues organized by the General Board of Church and Society and the Women's Division seminar program in New York The seminar was sponsored by the Deaconess Program Office of the General Board of Global Ministries. It included presentations from advocates for children and youth, immigrants' rights, human and civil rights, and restorative justice. Speakers also spoke about the effects of the global economy on workers in developing countries, and the devastating effects of debt on the world's poorest populations.

In the United States, despite the economic boom, poverty and homelessness continue to increase. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, "Ironically, when the economy booms overall, improving the financial conditions of the majority of Americans, it inflicts even greater hardship on those with the lowest incomes, primarily because of the increased cost of housing during strong economic times...Right now, a larger percentage of those living in shelters than ever before are employed workers -- 36% in Wisconsin, 45% in cities in Texas."

A December 1998 survey of 30 major urban centers in the United States by the U.S. Conference of Mayors indicate that 22 per cent of homeless people are employed, according to Mr. Stoops.

As the National Coalition explains, the reason behind this phenomenon is during economic prosperity, "the income of lower wage workers increases little, or not at all, while the cost of housing, inflated or not, soars. Consequently, the lowest income Americans typically pay 50 to 60% of their income for housing until they are unable to do it anymore."

But the problem of homelessness can be solved with more permanent solutions. The National Coalition proposes the building of affordable housing instead of temporary shelters, for those with the lowest incomes. It also recommends that living wages be provided for solid work, and making available health care that matches the needs of the homeless, whether it be for physical or mental illness, addictions, or for other health needs.

"We appreciate the food, the clothing -- but these are maintenance programs. They don't solve the problem, and the problem is solvable," said Mr. Whitner. He likened such approaches to "putting band aid on bullet wounds" when obviously what is required is to get the bullets out and find out who caused the wound. "Some organizations actually make money out of our misery," he added.

Mr. Whitner told the seminar participants that he had started working during the previous week, and expected to be off the streets by the end of December. In the meantime, he volunteers some of his time with the National Coalition.

Michael Stoops, who started working with homeless people since the 1970's shared that health care for the homeless is available in Washington, D.C. at the Center for Creative NonViolence and at Christ House. Christ House, which receives Advance Special funding (#3881215-4) from the General Board of Global Ministries, is a recovery facility that provides for the physical and emotional needs of homeless men.

In a very low-key style, Mr. Stoops addressed a common difficulty that many people have when they encounter the homeless. According to him, a homeless veteran named Charlie used to camp at Lafayette Park in front of the White House with his signs. These were some of his signs: "I see you not looking." "In my former life, I was like you." "If I were a dog, would you help me?"

This General Board of Global Ministries article was released December 7, 1999.

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