READ EXTENDED EXCERPTS FROM THE RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY INTERVIEW WITH NEW FEDERAL HOMELESSNESS CZAR, PHILIP MANGANO. THE CONVERSATION TOOK PLACE IN WASHINGTON, D.C. ON APRIL 2, 2002:
Q: Should people be able to choose to be homeless? Is there a right to be homeless?
A: The notion of choosing to be homeless, I think that's been with us from the very beginning of this country. There's a book called DOWN AND OUT IN AMERICA: THE ORIGINS OF HOMELESSNESS by Peter Rossi. It's a story of the history of homelessness in our country, and it's replete with stories of people who chose to be homeless.
I'm from Boston, and one of the great stories is the Boston Common, an area held in common in the early days of the colony, set aside for sheep and cattle grazing. And the citizens of Boston went to a reverend hermit who actually lived on the land and owned it, but he lived apart as a hermit. I don't believe that he had a house. He lived outside some of the time. He had the perfect right to do that and he had the perfect right to sell some of the land that he had. So I think there is a long tradition, from the very beginnings of our country's history, in terms of people choosing to live outside. I don't think there's any question of that. Of course, most people get concerned about that issue, in urban areas or in rural areas, when the inclement weather comes and it seems to them that a person's life is at risk. That's when it becomes a not-simple, ethical dilemma, I think, for people who are observing the vulnerability that people who live outside experience.
Q: When your appointment was announced, the Secretary of HUD said that churches are part of the equation for abolishing chronic homelessness, because they are closest to the root causes of it. Do you agree? And what does that mean for churches? Why do they have a special relationship to the homeless?
A: I think the secretary was actually astute in the observation concerning churches and their relationship to homelessness. Nearly every homeless program that I know of, other than those that have been begun and operated directly by city or state governments, almost all of the other responses to homelessness have had their roots in some kind of faith commitment. A group of priests, reverends, or rabbis in an area, seeing people homeless and on the streets, seeing families homeless, seeing children homeless have just done what almost any of us would think to do: that is, to make some kind of response to bring those people in. And much of that happened in the early 1980s.
Of course, one of my formative experiences in my own work, I was named the director of homeless services for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, many years ago. Frankly, the very first person I went to talk to was actually a man named Reverend Fred Reisz, who in his church basement had operated a shelter for many years. It was the very first real response of the faith community in Cambridge to the issue of homelessness. But even the other shelter in Cambridge was actually begun by seminarians. When I looked at the programs throughout Massachusetts, I discovered that nearly all of them had roots in some kind of faith institution that decided that it needed to respond to the issue of homelessness.
I think the notion that churches, or synagogues, are close to the root causes of homelessness ... I think when you spend a lot of time with homeless people, as I did -- I unfortunately spend less time now, being more of an administrator, but in the years that I spent working on a bread line in the city of Boston, one of the things that I discovered was that oftentimes homeless people were coming to that bread line not so much for the food -- because they could get food in other places -- they were actually coming to that bread line for the companionship that the volunteers who worked that bread line offered to them. The companionship in terms of relationships that were formed.
Part of my own formation around the issue of companionship and the spirituality of the notion of companionship came when I sat in on classes taught by Dr. Robert Coles at Harvard. He was looking at the book BREAD AND WINE, written by Ignacio Silone. He gave a lecture talking about the notion of companionship, and he reminded us that companionship and compassion are a bit different: that compassion is viewing a situation and having empathy at a distance, whereas companionship comes from the old French words, "com" = with, "pan" = bread. So the notion of companionship is to be together with people in the breaking of bread. And I think for myself, in my early years of working on that bread line, that was precisely what I was attempting to do, following some of my Franciscan inclinations. I was trying to be together with homeless people in the breaking of bread -- literally the breaking of bread in terms of providing the sandwiches on the bread line. But there is a larger sense, a more spiritual sense. It's a beautiful symbol. It's true in a number of different faiths that the breaking of bread connotes communion with. And I think that that notion of spirituality, of having communion with our poorest neighbors is elemental in a response to homelessness. It's critical in the response. Homeless people need that kind of response. They need communion and companionship. So I think the secretary is right on target.
Q: How does that contribute to abolishing homelessness?
A: I think the abolition of homelessness, it's ultimately a spiritual task, I think, and it's lived out politically. In our country, the notion of abolition has a long history associated with it and has, of course, 150 years ago and before. In fact, I've become quite a student of the movement of abolitionism, because it's the story in which I place the work that I do and the efforts that I've made. I heard Cornel West give a talk a number of years ago and he said, "If you're involved in some kind of social activity, don't understand that you're alone in that and that you are the first to come to that. Understand that you're part of a larger legacy, a larger story that's taken place over time." That was at a time when I was looking at the abolitionists as a model. So I quickly understood that part of the work that I was doing was part of that larger story of the work of abolitionism in the United States. When I understand that, the abolition of slavery was really the abolition of a social evil; that a group of people -- most of them came out of faith communities; in fact, most of them were what we would now term to be evangelicals. They understood that there was a dignity to every human being and that the dignity of every human being was violated by the notion that a person could be owned by someone else. And they fought to be foolish and naïve for many of the years that they continued their activities. They were relentless in their advocacy around what they considered to be biblical notions of the dignity of every person.
Well, that was the story in which I wanted to place my work. And I came to understand that homelessness needed to be abolished; that there was a violation of human dignity in this. The idea that our neighbors would not have a place to live -- to me, it violated certain notions that I think are part of natural law that God gave to us, that certainly are in the Scriptures of many of the great faith traditions: that the will of God is NOT that people be homeless, it is that the stranger be welcomed in, that the stranger be given food and shelter and housing. So the notion of abolitionism ultimately is a spiritual notion.
Now, it's often realized in a political way. The abolitionists eventually -- contrary to most of their natural instincts, because most of them were pacifists; most of them were actually calling for the North to secede from the South, because they wanted to secede from the evil that was being done there -- but when the war started, they all recoiled from the war, because it was violent. But as the war went on, they understood that there could possibly be a political solution; that is, a political solution to the ending of slavery. So they engaged the political authorities. And I think there are a number of historians [who believe] -- and I believe this myself -- that they were responsible for the movement in the political thinking from a war simply to preserve the Union to a war that would also abolish slavery. Of course, that's precisely what happened: that the social evil of slavery was ended by virtue of the war.
Which is actually a different circumstance than happened in England, because in England there was an abolitionist movement that went over a number of years, for many, many years. The notion in England was -- just as it was in the United States -- that there would be a conversion, a conversion of the sensibility of the English people; that they would turn against slavery, even though it had great social standing, just as it had in the United States. And over many years, William Wilberforce, who was in the English Parliament, would submit the same bill to end the slave trade. The early years when he did that, the bill was just laughed at. It was such a novel idea, it was so out of the ordinary that someone would want to abolish the slave trade, that literally no votes were gained. But he introduced that bill for 30 consecutive years -- I believe it was 30 consecutive years -- and finally that bill was passed in England, because there was a conversion that took place. It wasn't a war that effected the ending of a social evil; it was actually the conversion of a people to a different way of viewing a social evil. And Wilberforce was successful in 1831 in getting that passed.
Q: So does there need to be a conversion in America about homelessness?
A: Well, certainly the notion of a conversion in America around slavery happened only after the war, frankly. As late as 1859, there were very untoward things that happened. We had a Supreme Court Chief Justice who ruled that slaves weren't even human beings. So literally up until the late 1850s, the fugitive slave law, the Dred Scott decision indicated that that kind of conversion which occurred in England hadn't occurred in the United States.
In some ways, of course, the hope would be that there would be a conversion in that United States; that the same kind of feeling that we all had back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when we saw a homeless person on the street, we couldn't believe what we were seeing and we would call some authority to help -- either the church or the police. Someone should come and help that. We were all Good Samaritans back in those days. And I think, unfortunately, as homelessness has become more pervasive in our society, we've become a little bit anesthetized to seeing the results of homelessness, seeing homeless people on the street. And I know for myself -- I was just in New York City and there was a woman literally on the corner of, I think, 59th Street, where Tiffany's is. There was a woman on the corner, wrapped in a blanket, shaking. I went over to the woman and offered help. She wasn't enamored of my assisting her. She was begging. But it caused me to back away, go to a phone, and call somebody. I was fearful because she was shaking. I wasn't sure if she was detoxing or what was going on in her being. But, as a result of that, I stood there and watched. And I watched literally hundreds of people walk by a woman who was wrapped in a blanket, shivering on the corner of a street. I can't believe that those people would have walked by 20 years ago even, or 30 years ago. But now we've become so anesthetized to seeing homeless people. And we're all so uncertain of how to respond to homeless people that not only are we anesthetized to seeing them, I think there's a bit of a sense of being anesthetized [about] how to respond. We don't know exactly how to respond. So I saw many people hesitate but then continue to walk, because they didn't know exactly how to respond. Eventually, the EMT unit came and they were very kind and cordial to the woman, offered her transportation to a hospital, kind of checked her out physically, determined that she wasn't in need to go to a hospital, so that woman continued to be on the street. But it's breaking that sense of being anesthetized to the issue. I think that's the conversion that we need. We need to remember these people are none other than our poorest neighbors and that there is a call to us from any spiritual tradition, or even if we're without a spiritual tradition, there's a certain call to what our response should be to our poorest neighbors.
Q: Around the country you can find homeless churches -- churches specifically created for the homeless, of the homeless. They are the congregation. What do you think about that?
A: I've had a great experience [of that] myself in Boston. There's something called the Common Cathedral there that meets on the Boston Common. It's a congregation comprised primarily of people who have experienced homelessness. The Reverend Debbie Little, the Episcopal priest who is the parish priest of the Common Cathedral -- I've had many conversations with Debbie. What I've come to understand in that ministry and other ministries that are occurring around the country is that there's a certain offering that those churches make to the lives of homeless people that no institutional program, no government program can make to those lives. It has to do with what I mentioned earlier in terms of why people came to the bread line. It was because there were people who were responsive to them as human beings and who treated them with the dignity and respect that all human beings should be accorded. So these are churches that are comprised primarily of homeless people, I think what they do ... what I've talked to Debbie about it is, that the way I see them is that we have lots of programs that assist homeless people, that provide shelter, medical care, that provide a day center for people to go to. I see those as kind of the dry bones. They're important. They're very important. But they're the dry bones. These churches of homeless people, they breathe life into the dry bones. They make the dry bones get up and walk. I think the attraction of those churches -- and literally hundreds of people go to these churches in different places; each place has hundreds of communicants, so to speak -- I think it simply reminds us that ultimately the issue of homelessness is a spiritual issue. It's not really an ideological issue, it's not a political issue, it's not an economic issue. All of those are factors. There's no question. Politics and economics are absolutely factors in the issue of homelessness, but for most homeless people and the experience I've had of talking to homeless people, they are experiencing something spiritually in their lives by virtue of their homelessness.
Q: There are people in churches and faith communities who work with the homeless and minister to the homeless and who speak of having a closer relationship with God themselves in doing that. The homeless may come for companionship, but the volunteer may come to the homeless for companionship too. I wonder what you've experienced, how you've been changed or transformed in your own experiences with the homeless.
A: I think there's no question that people who work with homeless people -- it has an impact. It always has an impact. I've often heard people who volunteer at shelters, or volunteer at meal programs, talk about the fact that they're giving something, but what they're getting back is so much more than what they're giving. I've certainly seen that lived out in other people's lives. I spent about two and a half years volunteering on a bread line in downtown Boston; it was actually the first bread line in Boston since the Great Depression. In those years, I befriended homeless people. I would go to the bread line during the day and then I would go to meal programs at night. So I befriended homeless people. There wasn't a sense of them being homeless; it was a sense of them being my friends and I was trying to contribute to their lives, just as I did with friends who were housed. There were certain things. They might want me to go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles and help them stand in line for an hour to get a license. Well, in the same way, homeless people had various agencies that they needed to go to. And I would go with them to those agencies. Often there weren't enough shelter beds, so I would offer what room I had in my small apartment in the North End of Boston to people, and they would sleep in my apartment and all, because they were my friends and it was a natural thing to do. It's the same thing I would do for a housed friend. If they didn't have a place to go, I would offer.
What I learned was the spirituality, the importance of God to homeless people. They ministered to me. They served me. They ministered to me far more. I might have ministered to them in some way of going with them and not accepting "no" at some bureaucratic agency. They offered me a larger view into my own spirituality, because at that time I was very influenced -- and hopefully still am very influenced -- by the life of St. Francis of Assisi, who in fact gave up a life in, I would say, an affluent suburb, so to speak, and went and spent his life working with, caring for, and ministering to the poor. He himself talked about the beauty of the poor and the beauty that they had to offer. So I think, in many ways, my spiritual formation was certainly enhanced and certainly partially shaped by the companionship I've had in my life with homeless people. Frankly, in some of the jobs I've had recently, that's the precise thing that I miss. I see people who are in state and federal agencies, who work in state and federal agencies, more than I see homeless people. And I miss that companionship.
Q: In New York City, the minister at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church speaks about needing to keep the homeless visible, to be reminded that they need to be prayed for -- to keep them on the steps of that church, unlike the city wants, so that they aren't out of sight. Do we need to keep the homeless visible in our society for that purpose?
A: Actually, I visited that church. It was a Saturday and I just went into the church and prayed in the little chapel that they have open there in a very kind way, so literally anyone can go into that chapel and pray. You don't have to be homeless. I was aware of the ministry that they had to homeless people on their steps. What isn't mentioned enough, I think, about that situation is, they also have a shelter in that church. Many people think that they're simply ministering to people on the steps; why don't they bring those folks in? Well, in fact, they do have a shelter in that church. And the very people that they're ministering to on the steps of the church are people who preferred NOT to go inside.