Until very recently, I had no idea how hard it is for some of our friends just to find somewhere to lay themselves down to sleep at night. I knew that inner-city families moved around a lot, but I didn’t realize how much heartache and humiliation goes before and after most of those moves, both for the families and for the neighborhoods they come and go from in search of better space.
Part of the problem is low incomes, of course, which leave almost everyone around here one minor setback way from missing rent. But beyond that, there are often rats and roaches and bedbugs to contend with, along with those normal, everyday conflicts with neighbors that, in this environment, can quickly become unacceptably dangerous. There are broken pipes and broken heaters and, as often as not, broken promises from landlords who live in a very different world.
Of course, the broken promises go both ways. Every day we see neighbors say and do things that would rattle almost any property owner; and we have learned the hard way not to immediately take any story of mistreatment at face value. Still, there is no denying that lots of money – much of it taxpayers’ money – flows through neighborhoods like ours into the pockets of people who care too little about those they are supposed to shelter.
Last week our friend Helen and I spent the better part of three days driving all over town tracking down birth certificates, proofs of custody, income statements, and police background checks, hoping to qualify her for a HUD-subsidized apartment near enough that her grandson David could stay at his school and that both of them could stay in our fellowship. Helen’s recently deceased mother had been paying the rent for all of them with her Social Security, but all they have now is the paycheck from Helen’s part-time home health care job and David’s food stamps.
Without my car, my computer, my money at certain offices, and my white male privilege at others, the whole endeavor would have been utterly impossible for Helen – who is herself in need of some home health care. Even with my help, we needed a few kind folks to bend a few silly rules in our favor. By the time we got everything squared away, I was worn out and cranky. Being poor is an awful lot of work.
Thank God there is a whole bunch of us here, living together and loving our neighbors as a team. While Helen and I were jumping through HUD hoops, Karen and Donna were tracking down furniture for her and three other families in the fellowship whose living spaces are nearly empty, and our newest partner, Mark Leeman, was tracking down donors who want to invest in some rental properties we can fix up and manage right, right here in the neighborhood.
We know we can’t house everyone, but the more we see what’s going on around us, the more bound and determined we are to take care of the handful of neighbors we feel God has given to be our closest friends. After all, there is no way to build the kind of close-knit community we keep dreaming of without first making sure that all of us are safe and sound.
Bart Campolo is a veteran urban minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, loving relationships and social justice. Bart is the leader of The Walnut Hills Fellowship, a local ministry in inner city Cincinnati.