IF THE poor are going to be with us always, the least we can do is keep them out of our neighborhoods.
That seems to be the perspective of many prominent leaders of the downtown business community who want Our Daily Bread soup kitchen to relocate. They embody the current post-Great Society mind-set toward the poor: Poverty can't be eliminated, but its harm to the rest of us can be reduced if we're diligent.
Unwitting co-architects in this scheme are many people who serve the poor, providing them with housing, food or services through the contributions of those who want the poor out of sight.
Agencies such as my own -- a nonprofit group that provides legal services to the homeless -- are always cash-strapped and increasingly under pressure to show donors that our programs are structured according to their values.
Our Daily Bread now faces this trade-off in its starkest form. The business community appears ready to provide the soup kitchen with additional financial support if it simply agrees to move the poor from the key business and retail area.
War on the poor
The push to relocate Our Daily Bread is just the latest salvo in an offensive against the poor that has been codified in recent years in laws governing welfare, housing and criminal behavior. Such laws stand in sharp contrast to the biblical laws upon which Our Daily Bread derives its mission.
The biblical commands relative to the poor were directed to a community wider than the saints and martyrs. The laws of the Old Testament directed the Israelites to act corporately to alleviate poverty. Under gleaning laws, farmers were instructed to leave some of their harvest, including the corners of grain fields for the poor.
Every seventh or "sabbatical" year, the land was to lie fallow, "that the poor of your people may eat," and all debts were to be canceled. The year of "Jubilee" was to occur every 50 years and required that all land, (the primary source of capital in the agrarian economy) be returned to its original owners without compensation.
"There should be no poor among you," the almighty is quoted as saying in Deuteronomy, "if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands."
Biblical scholars find little evidence that the tithe, sabbatical and jubilee years were observed. Some have speculated that this disobedience was anticipated by God and resulted in the proverbial line about the inevitability of poverty: "The poor will be with you always. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land."
The verse is seen by some as a commentary about the behavior of the rich, not the poor. One Bible commentary calls the verse a "parenthetical" observation, noting that it is only "for want of fidelity" to God's laws, that the "poor would always be present." In short, charity must abide because the laws of redistributive justice will go unheeded.
Ironically, it is adherence to, not neglect of, our own laws that has now made the situs of charity a concern. These laws generally assume that it is the behavior of the poor, not the rich, that needs to be changed.
Consider City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who, after pinning the blame for public housing's deterioration on the practice of housing the homeless, is changing the housing authority's admission rules. Under the new guidelines, the homeless will be presumed unable to live independently in public housing. They must first show themselves "housing ready" through good behavior in short-term emergency and transitional housing.
Welfare laws operate on similar presumptions of dysfunction. Benefits are withheld or reduced if poor people do not work, get their children to checkups or school or maintain their sobriety. Time limits dangle the sword of homelessness over their heads to ensure behavioral changes.
Five years ago, the downtown business community obtained government authorization for a private safety patrol to calm shoppers' fears about the homeless and destitute. A year later, they successfully pushed for an "aggressive" panhandling ordinance that makes even peaceful begging illegal. This year, the state legislature fulfilled downtown leaders' push for a $1 million community court to handle minor crimes in Baltimore. It is designed to increase the number of people arrested for committing "nuisance" crimes. The ultimate stick waits in the wings: A proposed City Council ordinance that would make sleeping in public places illegal, thereby making homelessness a criminal offense.
In the midst of all this stands Our Daily Bread, gathering the Old Testament-inspired tithes and gleanings of today and making them available to the poor without condition. In contrast to the downtown business interests, those who run the soup kitchen donot presume the poor to be dysfunctional; rather, they see in them the image of God, despite their shortcomings.
At its present location for seven years, Our Daily Bread has let its light shine from its vantage point atop a hill in the heart of the business community. Has the time really come for it to put its light under a bushel?
Peter Sabonis is executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project.
Pub Date: 6/04/98