The homeless lump on the bench. It’s filthy. You can’t see a face -- this thing is covered up against the evening, only its feet sticking out. Geez, not even shoes. You edge up the path, wondering if you pass by without being noticed, wondering if you’ll smell it anyway, wondering why can’t this loafer find a place to live? McDonald’s is always hiring, for God’s sake.
So you do get a little close because you have to pass by and you were hoping to use that bench. Maybe the next one. After all, this is the best place to see the sunset and eat gelato … or it was.
You can’t help but look a little closer as you pass by. Voyeurism, disgust. The rubbernecker’s curiosity. It’s then that you notice its bare feet. No, you really notice its bare feet -- because they have holes in them. Nail holes. And you realize it’s not a homeless lump. It’s a sculpture lump. It’s not alive at all -- as if you were thinking of it as alive in the first place. It’s a statue -- and it’s a statue depicting Jesus Christ. This is Fort Lauderdale, and in this city in Florida, it is effectively illegal to be homeless.
Do you see homelessness differently now?
In the United States today, 71 cities have banned feeding the homeless. Florida and California lead the nation in restrictive legislation, with Chico, CA, imposing a ban on distributing free food in its park and Costa Mesa, CA, demolishing two sites where the homeless have typically found shelter. In Fort Lauderdale, FL, a 60-year-old man was nabbed by the cops while offering a plate of food to a homeless individual, and told to “drop the plate” as if it were a weapon.
Proponents of anti-homeless laws argue that offering help, or tolerating squatting and loitering, encourages and increases homelessness -- as well as crime. But those who support offering aid see the conflict as one not of crime or community safety, but as one of a basic conflict of values.
“What do we really value?” commented Lisa Williams, an attorney who grew up in Costa Mesa, CA. “When we make laws against the homeless, especially in these wealthy areas, we’re really saying we don’t like the mess. We don’t want to participate in a solution, but we don’t want to see the suffering.”
In other words, banning the homeless is an attitude that puts human dignity second, my comfort first. While it’s true that the homeless don’t look pretty, they’re often camping out in neighborhoods because those very neighborhoods have not voted to offer a municipal-based shelter in the area -- shelters that are often legally required by city and state laws.
Yet why are the shelters not built for the homeless people who have nowhere to go? Perhaps because the homeless aren’t pretty, they aren’t useful, and sometimes, they need a whole lot. Yet if it’s illegal to be homeless, should it be illegal to be poor? If it’s illegal to be poor, should it be illegal to have a large family -- grungy, loud, maybe taking up a bit too much space at the park all afternoon? Could our worth and value be just a matter of whether we’re useful and pleasing to the community?
Cities banning homelessness often aren’t willing to look at offering resources for the homeless. In San Clemente, CA, the state-required shelter has been delayed for over a year, as residents and the city council hem and haw over location -- none of the neighborhoods want the shelter near their homes.
Criminalization of the homeless -- and legislative and community acts behind it -- is an example of the Culture of Death, a culture that puts material wants, power, or appearances before a basic respect of human life. The homeless may cause you discomfort. But if comfort comes before a basic respect for our fellow man’s dignity, we are looking at a values system that has gone topsy-turvy. After all, aren’t you really the one responsible for your discomfort -- is it perhaps natural to feel uncomfortable when you see a human being disrespected, homeless, and robbed of the dignity of food and shelter?
The statue in the park is real. Tim Schmaltz, a Canadian artist, created it in 2013, and Pope Francis invited it to occupy a bench in St. Peter’s -- doing exactly what it does: offer a shocking perspective on our own attitudes towards our fellow man, homelessness, and where our laws and communities draw a line at where we’ll give human dignity. And where we put the sticker “less-than.”
Here is a link to the video of the artist, and explanation of the sculpture: https://youtu.be/2rAys_ON8rg.