The Tragic Deaths of the Poor
From the start, I am often offended by the arrogant assumption that homeless individuals choose this life! An alarming ignorance that says they would choose to endure homelessness, choose to sleep in shelters, abandoned buildings, loading docks, trains and under bushes to gain a freedom not known by the housed population. This myth reeks of "Holier Than Thou" sentiments, and sadly, portrays a profound ignorance of this diverse and suffering group that are trapped in a lifestyle they dream they could escape from! The Homeless population are frequently subject to society's most dangerous elements, from sickness and disease to murder to Chicago's weather extremes.
This past year I have known at least 9 homeless and precariously housed people who have died. This number excludes many of this population, due to their frequent travelling and mystery. Three were murdered; two with a gun and one with a knife. Four people died through disease; heart attack, congestive heart failure, cancer and asthma. The other two died because of sickness (pneumonia) and a fatal overdose of heroin. The sad reality is, none of them had yet reached the age of 60 and two were only about 30!
It is but the tender and fragile life of homeless living; the risk of existing on the streets, the tragedy of moving from shelter to shelter and the caged reality of feeling precariously trapped in tiny cheap cubicles, called apartments, where even air struggles to circulate!
The RISKS are many:
Murder sadly falls in one of three categories: Hate Crimes, Retaliation and Living Dangerously:
One of the murdered individuals was simply sleeping on a bench and was fatally shot in the head - why? God only knows! Homeless individuals are repeatedly persecuted, they are often bullied and they experience the grief of Hate Crimes; many have reported to me the abuse they receive; like rocks thrown at them, their carts knocked over and constant verbal assassination of their character or social position!
The second murdered man was, presumably, in an argument. and suffered the result of revenge: Multiple bullets to the head! Tragic and devastating, yet speaks of society's love of violence, guns and the need to "right a wrong"! This sort of violent retaliation rings true amongst countries and people groups, rich and poor, young and old, male and female!
Thirdly, a female, presumably trying to make a buck, was brutally murdered by the man she was seeing; stabbed and stuffed into a hotel closet! The world's oldest "profession" is a very dangerous one! (It is only presumed she was prostituting). Homeless men and women are constantly needing money and a few do things they do not want to do, yet feel obligated to do; like burglary, selling dime bags, directing traffic to the local drug dealers, male and female prostitution and other illegal activities! The amount they get is incredibly small compared to the very dangerous risk they take: murder, retaliation, AIDS, STDs, imprisonment and the list goes on. It must be noted: Often the financial needs are not for drugs and alcohol, but are for very important, legitimate and caring reasons: birthday presents for children, food, clothes and so forth.
As I mentioned above: four died from disease and one from sickness. This is very common, as homeless and precariously housed people are characterized as 'immune compromised individuals'. This means that they are more likely to get a disease (including AIDS, Hepatitis and Tuberculous) and get seriously sick, than a housed person with money, because of their lowered immune systems. Many do not have health insurance, cannot afford medication and get the healthy food their bodies cry out for (healthier food is a lot more expensive). By Law, Hospitals have to take all people, but they often release the poor early, due to their lack of insurance! The care they need does not come, and the environment they need seems impossible to find.
Living in shelters or "on the street" subjects one more to getting sick with pneumonia and other sickness and injuries, and then, recovery is a long process. In shelters, people are surrounded by other people who are also getting sick, coughing and running fevers, thus producing a cycling effect. Subsidized housing, in the form of single room occupancies; are often very small rooms (sometimes with a shared bathroom), with little air or circulation and the summer heat can produce deadly results, especially to those who are asthmatic and / or have heart disease. Winter in Chicago, is less fatal, but homeless people are sometimes found frozen to death. When the weather forecast predicts a potentially dangerous period, Cornerstone (and other locations) open their doors so people can escape the elements!
The five individuals I knew tragically perished as a result of the above reasons: My question is: If they could have received the medication, care, help, food they needed, along with an air conditioner and other important appliances, would they have died so quickly? I don't think so - God knows!
The ninth person was a deaf and mute woman in her forties. For years, she struggled to climb the social ladder and existed in and out of homelessness. She had learnt to hustle, so she could get her food, pay her rent (when housed) and live on a day to day basis. Not known as a heroin addict, she was sadly discovered with a needle in her vein on Chicago's South side. Uptown's homeless crew ponder the mystery of when and how she chose to inject; was it tragic result of reuniting with her old addicted boyfriend who recently "came home", was it a bad buy or did she just take too much?
Drugs claim another as we mourn the loss of this sweet poor sister struggling to survive. I am stirred with hatred for these substances, as they take many lives prematurely through addiction, power, greed, money and violence! Death is drugs ultimate tragedy, but many of the dying suffer the fate of prison, unemployment, medical complexities, gangland warfare and eviction. The path is deadly, yet many follow it's course!
Why do I delve into such a depressing reality? My answer: because it IS reality! Death reeks of societies inequalities. We need to be crying for justice and pleading for God's mercy! We, as followers of Jesus, need to imitate Jesus and His love and reach out to the poverty stricken. In the Sheep and Goats, Jesus identifies and claims that He is these people. "As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto Me!" We must not forget and / or ignore these glowing differences! We must not forget that what our Calling is! We must not forget to follow the example of Jesus and His compassion!
Yet, SADLY, this is not all! Death for the homeless is frequently, so mysterious, that many are not privileged enough to be honoured with a funeral, memorial service or grave head stone. Some, it must be noted, die as if they did not exist; no one knows they died! The sad and depressing reality of being homeless in the USA is a person's mother, father and children may never know whether their family member is actually living.
John was a very unique chronically homeless man! In his mid 50's, John "the baptist" had floated in and out of prison and was a desperate alcoholic, with an intense spirituality and love for Jesus. John had written to me while "serving time", and had shown to me his passion to "do" right and live a life "worthy of his calling". Freedom to John was bondage - he was trapped with an addictive personality and the driving force of Chicago's harsh streets. John sadly passed in April 2008: just released from a stint in hospital, he returned to his 15 homeless buddies on the loading dock where they drunk some beer and fell asleep. John did not wake up, he had had a heart attack and lay lying in the pouring rain! His fragile friends, with numerous medical conditions (including a wheelchair bound man), tried to pull him from that driving shower. John has now been released from his bondage and brought into the light of everlasting freedom!
John had touched our hearts by grieving with him, laughing with him and praying together. We had also experienced moments of torment, where in drunken aggression he had been extremely difficult to communicate with, yet it must remembered, John was an unique character and was loved child of God! He is greatly missed! His homeless friends decided they needed to celebrate his existence with a quiet memorial service.
John's family was not known, nor did we know how to contact them! Did he have a mum or dad? brothers? sisters?, we knew he had children and possibly grandchildren, but where? The continual homeless mystery!
One Saturday night, amongst a long line of Hispanic concert dwellers eagerly awaiting the doors to open, Chris, Stewart, Darrell, Beth and I meet on his loading dock. With 4 of his friends we celebrated his life and grieved his death. We brought a black and white police photo, food, drinks, flowers, candles and hygiene items. We prayed. We shared stories. We read from God's Word. We hugged. We cried. We laughed. We celebrated and we grieved! It was an emotional experience that touched my heart and I was blessed by sharing this time with Robert, Archie, Sheena and John in the place where they lay their heads at night. Jesus, undoubtedly, was honoured through our little service!
I would like to say that John's story is over. But, his family had not been found and John's body remained in the city morgue. A couple months later, "Cricket", coordinating with her pastor, calls me and is still trying to solve the mystery. I gave her a ratty photocopy of John's mug shot, the only picture we have of him, and I also gave her a suit for John to be buried in. Through her efforts, John has a memorial service at a South side Funeral home and was buried, three months after his death.
The tragic deaths of the poor often reflect John's story. The mysterious and forgotten! The rejected and despised! The suffering and the hurt! John received more than many! He had a couple of services, a suit to wear and people fighting to celebrate a life once lived! Many of the homeless do not receive this luxury, they are sadly thrown in a potter's field!
The tragic deaths of the poor need us, as Christians, to live as Jesus did! Listening! Weeping! Laughing! Organizing! Celebrating! Praying! Not running away from the tragedy of death, but offering support to those in need. Death is a painful and difficult reality, but the love of Jesus shines greatest in our weak frailty.