Rhode Island and homeless rights

The state of Rhode Island, which in many respects is more like a city than a state, recently enacted a law extending certain rights to homeless persons. These rights include things that most of us take for granted: the right to be left alone, the right to sleep and the right to be present in a public place.

Rhode Island should be commended for passing this law, although some would argue that it’s unnecessary, as the activities mentioned above aren’t illegal. Unless you’re homeless.

In many jurisdictions, laws have been written in recent years with the express intention of making it difficult for homeless persons to live there. Vagrancy laws have been beefed up to prohibit sleeping (or eating!) in public or remaining in the same location for extended periods. These essentially do everything but prohibit homeless people from existing. Christians, who are supposed to share God’s concern for “the least of these,” should be horrified - and moved to act - when draconian laws like these are passed, but often we don’t even notice. Or worse, we stand in tacit approval of these harsh measures, figuring perhaps that the homeless should be someone else’s concern.

I should confess right now my great ambivalence about homeless people. While I strongly support the Rhode Island law that lets them move about unmolested, I admit to having a range of complex emotions when stopped at an intersection where a panhandler is standing three feet from my car with a cardboard sign that says “Homeless - Please Help. God Bless.” I seldom help; even less often do I pray for God to bless these fellow citizens. So I am hardly a paragon of tender-heartedness.

 

Nevertheless, I think we have some duties as Christians toward our homeless brethren (for that is what they are) that Rhode Island’s new law underscores. Our first and most important duty is not to oppress them.

What does oppression look like? It looks like the many city ordinances designed to discourage panhandlers. Oppressing homeless people is as simple as saying, one way or another, “You’re not welcome here. Go away. Go be homeless somewhere else.” The various ordinances prohibiting vagrancy, etc., are just variations on this theme. Tales are told of police in suburban parts of my city picking up vagrants and depositing them downtown in the neighborhood where missions and shelters can be found. Though it may seem benign, this forced relocation is also a kind of oppression.

Christians tend to lean one of two directions on the subject of homelessness. One side loves to cite Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians, “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat,” as though that’s all the Bible says on the matter. The other side is more attuned to Jesus’ teachings on the Good Samaritan or the lowly brethren  of Matthew 25. I find myself oscillating between these positions on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

But one principle that should be plain to both groups is that the homeless are our fellow men and women, and as such are image-bearers of God and therefore in possession of the same human dignity as you and I and the Prince of Wales. Their brokenness, which you and I also share, is just a little more evident to the casual observer.

It’s a long distance, conceptually and legislatively, from Rhode Island’s homeless bill of rights to a welfare state that guarantees a roof and three squares to everyone, everywhere. I have concerns about the latter because of the principle of moral hazard. But I have no compunction at all about recommending that other states follow Rhode Island’s example and enact laws that extend (or more accurately, underscore) the most basic rights to homeless citizens. To do less than this would be unChristian.

What Do You Think?

  • Should more states enact laws like Rhode Island’s
  • How can a Christian best respond to homelessness? How do you?

 

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