“Those People”: What Is Our Responsibility to Our Unhoused, Addicted, or Mentally Ill Neighbor? by Cameron Bellm

There’s a debate raging here in Seattle, and this is the crux of it: should we have compassion for our unhoused neighbors, often plagued by mental illness and addiction? We are gearing up for a hotly contested mayoral election, and this is the time in our civic calendar when we are most likely to hear that disembodying refrain: “those people.” Message boards and op-eds are full of disparaging statements. “Those people don’t want our help; they just want to steal from us.” “Those people are driving down our property value.” “Those people are destroying this city.”

I had occasion to think about this recently when I headed out of the house to drive my son to summer camp. We park in the street, like most other people in this neighborhood. Our house is one hundred years old, and its driveway isn’t wide enough for a car of this century; even if it were, the property line runs right down the middle of it, meaning we and our neighbors each have claim to exactly half of an outdated strip of cement.

As I approach our car, I notice, to my dismay, that I have left the trunk open—either that or my kids have gotten hold of my key fob. They find it hilarious to open the trunk from inside the house. A quick look confirms that nothing is missing: the trunk is still strewn with bikes and scooters, helmets and kites. I walk around to the front of the car to toss in my son’s backpack, and that’s when I see it: the door ajar, the contents of our glovebox scattered all over the floorboard, even our gas cap cover gaping open.

It’s upsetting to realize that something we thought was ours has been touched by someone else, someone we don’t know. The car is a mess of masks and insurance cards, the only things we keep there besides my son’s collection of Captain Underpants books. Shaken, I drive my son to camp and put everything back in order when I get home. The only missing item is a bag full of quarters, kept on hand for parking meters.

This is not an uncommon occurrence in our neighborhood or in our city—people walking up and down the streets in the middle of the night, trying car doors. Windows are smashed, catalytic converters are stolen, sometimes whole cars. Seattle has a huge unhoused population, many of them struggling with addiction and/or mental illness. They need money, things to sell. Virtually every public ill is placed on their shoulders by their well-heeled and amply housed neighbors. I ask myself: is this just the cost of living in a city? Is it just the cost of living in this terribly imperfect world?

I don’t like words like fallen, broken. They’re too condemnatory, too resigned, too permissive of simply giving up on our constant calling to build the Kingdom of God. Those words tell us that something is beyond redemption. And I just don’t believe that’s true.

As I’m sorting through the oil change receipts and auxiliary cords, something catches my eye on the floorboard: a tiny vial of water, safely wrapped in a plastic bag. It’s from the Glastonbury Chalice Well, given to me by a dear friend. The well is named for one of its legends, which holds that Joseph of Arimathea placed here the chalice that collected the drops of Christ’s blood from the crucifixion.

It jolts me to this realization: I am connected to this person who rifled through our car. Our hands have touched, in a sense, but even if they hadn’t, we would still be linked through our common humanity, through the God that breathed us both into being, through the incarnation that sanctified us both, even in all our imperfection. The truth is that human beings are bearers of the divine image, and wherever a human being is, there we find the holy, the sacred. It is an immutable truth, even while one is cleaning up after a break-in.

A few hours later I’m driving my other son to the park, and I pass by several encampments of unhoused people along the streets. RVs are flanked by stalled cars, belongings spilling out of each one, taking over the sidewalks. “Those people.” I think about how much we try to assemble our lives such that certain things do not touch us, do not affect us. And I think about how that is a lie. There is no human experience that is not relevant to all humans. We can avert our eyes, yes, but we cannot disavow that we belong to one other, that we have responsibilities to one another. In a city as wealthy as Seattle, it feels criminal, violent even, to allow our sisters and brothers to live this way.

I grieve the unfairness of this life, the suffering of others. I drive home thinking about how I’m no better than anyone else, about how the choices I have made in my life have been dictated by the options that were available to me, the tremendous privilege of my skin color, the zip code I was born in, the minimal to non-existent amount of trauma to which I’ve been exposed. I think about what Greg Boyle, SJ, the founder of Homeboy Industries, calls “a lethal absence of hope.” And I weep, wanting better for everyone I’ve encountered this morning, wanting better for all of us.

I’m no public policy expert, and I have no easy answers. But I do have a burning desire for every human being in this city and in this world to be free, to be safe, to reach their full potential, to know their own sacredness. I know that Catholic social teaching calls us to honor the life and dignity of the human person, to make a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, to take seriously our deeply holy responsibility to one another. And I know that we will never get there by pretending that “those people” are not people after all.

Cameron Bellm writes the Spirit & Verse column at Jesuits.org and is the author of A Consoling Embrace: Prayers for a Time of Pandemic (2020) and No Unlikely Saints: A Mental Health Pilgrimage with Sacred Company (2021).

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