It’s About Justice.

kberggren May 25, 2017

The following are exerpts by Rev. Dr. James Gertmenian on the 10th anniversary of Heading Home Hennepin on March 29, 2017.

It’s wonderful to be back with you all again!  It seems like yesterday that many of us were meeting over at Plymouth Church to devise the ten-year plan for ending homelessness.  Well, it seems like yesterday until you stop and remember the incredible amount of work that all of you have done since then, the effort that you’ve made, the obstacles you’ve met and, in many instances, overcome.  Then it seems like a long time.  And let’s be honest.  It hasn’t been easy.   The goal posts got moved way back when the economy collapsed in 2008, but you have persevered.   You’ve shown up every day on behalf of people without homes.   You’ve built amazing coalitions.  You’ve created smart, humane systems. You’ve leveraged limited resources and stretched them as far as anyone could.  You have deftly worked to build political will among decision makers… You’re amazing.

At the same time, we all know it:  there’s more work to be done.   Not just here, but everywhere.  In my new home state of Maine, we’re trying to pass a modest Housing First bill, and we have a new supportive housing project opening in Portland next month.  You, here, are hoping to increase MFIP payments, create still more housing opportunities, and, as always, improve systems that serve people experiencing homelessness.  

When efforts like ours have these milestone moments – in this case, the 10th Anniversary of Heading Home Hennepin – it’s helpful to revisit and remember the underlying ideas that fostered the movement, the values that sustain it going forward.  And in this case, that’s pretty straightforward.   It’s a matter of justice.  This is so important.  Ending homelessness isn’t about charity.  It isn’t about public generosity.  It isn’t about some bloodless kind of social engineering.  It’s about justice, plain and simple.  And here, I don’t mean justice that is arrived at by the pinched calculus of our legal and economic systems, the kind of justice you find in a courtroom or on a spreadsheet. I mean a deeper justice.  I mean justice that flows inexorably from the realization that all human beings partake of the same dignity.    In this case, it’s about the foundational assumption that in a just society, every person has a fundamental right to safe, decent, and affordable housing. 

Now, you all know this, and you hardly need to be reminded of it by me, but the sad fact is that nowadays, we live in a political climate where it is becoming more and more acceptable to say, “It’s not a right at all.  It’s all about personal responsibility.  Health care?  Education?  Housing?  No one owes you that.  The government might pragmatically choose to help you out a little bit, and maybe some private agencies will chip in, or wealthy people will let some of their wealth trickle down, but essentially, you’re on your own; you have to make your own way.”  That’s our new political culture which turns out – when you examine it – to be little more than an old Social Darwinist idea dressed up in hip libertarian language with a dose of Ayn Rand thrown in for good measure.  But it won’t do.  This is not acceptable.  So some of us have to stand up to remind people that the deeper American compact, built over generations, is about more than personal responsibility.  Certainly in Minnesota, of all places, we cannot lose sight of the great communitarian strain that has made us an enlightened culture.   We have spent generations slowly recognizing a panoply of self-evident and broadly accepted human rights, and one of those is the right to housing.

Walter Bruggemann, eminent scholar of Hebrew Scripture, puts it very succinctly, very clearly.   “Justice,” he writes, “is to sort out what belongs to whom and to return it to them.”   And my mentor, William Sloane Coffin, brought that very idea to bear on housing.  He said: “Just as to the slaves freedom was not a gift but the restoration of a right no one had any business taking from them, so a home is a right; the homeless are being robbed.”   Those are tough words, challenging words.  “The homeless are being robbed.”   But there’s a profound idea here, namely that the goods of the earth and the essential benefits of society belong to us all.  They are meant to be distributed if not equally, at least equitably.  When it comes to these essential benefits – food, shelter, education, health care – they are to be distributed not on the basis of what one has earned or inherited, not on the basis of skill or virtue, but simply by dint of one’s being a member of the community.  Say it again: in a just community, everyone is entitled to a safe, decent, and affordable place to live.  We shy away from the word “entitlement.”   The fact is, these days we don’t just shy away from it; we run from it like the plague.   “Entitlements” in our current political climate are seen as bad, as give-aways that should be reduced as much as possible and hopefully eliminated altogether in the end of the day.   Even Social Security gets branded as an “entitlement,” when it isn’t that at all, unless I’m just imagining all the dollars that got taken out of my paycheck over the years.  But I digress.  When it comes to housing, entitlement is exactly the right word, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it.  Say it yet one more time: In a just society, every human being has the right – is entitled – to a safe, decent, and affordable place to live.  Ending homelessness is the goal . . . and housing justice is the idea that feeds the work.  

I know that if you are doing the day-to-day work of threading through bureaucracies, of convincing legislators, of offering direct service to people in need, all of what I’m saying here may seem heady, out-of-touch, perhaps even contradictory to what your daily work requires of you.  But I mean it as encouragement, as support, as nourishment for your spirits.   I mean to say to you that you have a mightily powerful mandate behind you:  the mandate of justice.  You are on the side of the angels . . . the angels of our better nature as a civilization.  By contrast, we are ruled today by the true believers in unfettered free markets,  true believers in “the survival of the fittest,” in “every man for himself” (and I meant to use the word “man” there).   It won’t be long before we will hear the now familiar mantra of “access” being applied to housing as it has been applied in recent weeks to health care.  “Everyone should have access to decent housing” we’ll be told, but what will be left unanswered is the question: “What good is access to housing, if you can’t afford housing?”  In the face of that challenge, we must resist.  We must speak of justice.  We must argue for the right to housing, not simply the right of access to housing.   Some of us will build our argument on theological foundations: “God gives every human being the birthright of food, shelter, education, health care.”   Others of us will argue from more humanistic or secular reasoning: “These basic rights are foundations on which a just society is built.”   Both approaches are important and we will need to bring them both to bear together to make our case before the public.  

In the meantime, it is altogether appropriate to pause and acknowledge the progress made over the past ten years . . . to pause and thank those who worked for that progress . . . to pause and congratulate every member of our community who, having experienced homelessness before, now lives in a place of their own.   These are all cause for celebration.  And then our celebration should propel us back to the work of devising the strategies, crafting the policies, implementing the plans that will bring us closer the day when justice will prevail and homelessness will be no more.   So, dear friends, never doubt the power of what you are doing.   I think of you every day and draw deep inspiration from you as I play a small role in Maine’s work for justice.  Many others look to you as well.    So, when you have setbacks, don’t give up.  When you have differences of opinion or strategy, don’t break up.  When you have successes, don’t let up.   You are workers in a great cause; you are what the Hebrew prophets called “repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to dwell in.”   My hope is that every day in this critical endeavor you will feel empowered, emboldened, and blessed.