I looked down at his wrists, bound together with metal handcuffs as he moved his body toward the front of the police car obeying the silent index finger of the police officer. He had not made eye contact with me yet, and I felt myself staring at the handcuffs themselves.
I realized in that moment, looking down at his handcuffs, that I felt like my hands were tied as well. I then also quickly realized that I have never been handcuffed. Ever. I don’t know what metal against my wrists feels like. I don’t know what obeying the silent finger of a police officer feels like.
We’ve been working for the last two years to get this program off the ground. Through research and relationship it has become obvious that once you are on the down and out, short of a miracle you will never be able to get back on your feet again, much less work, pay your own bills, and be spoken to and interacted with as someone who is not defined as “down and out.” Through this same research, we’ve come to discover that it’s only through job creation and long-term support that there is any hope of moving toward self-sustainability. Not the kind that means we don’t live in community, but that kind that means we are able to live in ways scripture refers to as working, building our own houses, and resting in them.
We have been partnering and depending on churches across our small, Bible-belt, semi-rural community for the last seven years to house men who are homeless in our shelter-less city in their churches, eating dinner with them, watching movies with them, laughing and crying with them, and learning each other’s names with them. Seven years later, we are all changed from this interaction.
And from these new relationships, a case management center and daytime hospitality center has been created, an eight-bed safe haven for homeless men has been taken on, and in the last few months, a transitional work program has begun. Two years in the making, we are now able to create jobs for the men of our homeless and housing services to be able to do good work for a paycheck.
Problems aren’t solved, but it’s a start.
With the transitional work program, we’ve created enough work over the last few months to now have multiple lawn care contracts across the community, including one contract with the city government itself. The men themselves as well as the staff who work with them are at it hard nearly six days a week.
Progress is made, it feels. Work is being created, income is being generated, and the “down and out” are able to move a little closer to a kingdom vision of what it means to have the chance to work and be paid for your work, and to then pay for your own needs.
Tonight, as I’m trying to run in the office doors of our small nonprofit to work on last minute details for our big fundraiser later this week…the fundraiser that will help support these work creation programs for the homeless in our community… I park in the lot to see the very police officer who is now directing the actions of a grown man by the silent pointing of a finger.
I find out, after brief conversation with the police officer, that one of the guests of the homeless day center has stolen a leaf blower from the trailer carrying the equipment for the transitional work program for other homeless guests.
“That leaf blower is evidence, and we can lock him up for a few months at least,” he says, then phoning in his partner who is holding the man a few blocks over, telling him to bring the man and the leaf blower to the office. My mind begins reeling through Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” My memory conjures up the words of another man in my counseling practice earlier today dealing with a lifetime of abuse and neglect, then drug use and criminal activity, then prison, and now the words “I can’t go back to prison. I can’t go back to prison.” My gut screams at me suggesting that we all should have known it would be a homeless man who stole the lawn equipment being used to create jobs for homeless men.
But my eyes go to those handcuffs, and my fragile little white, well-educated, privileged wrists that have never felt the pressure of metal, and I think to myself, “I feel like my hands are tied.”
And I hear the words come out of my mouth, “We don’t want to arrest him. We don’t want to press charges. We won’t, officer. I’m sorry.”
I want to look the man in handcuffs in the eyes and tell him again that there are people out here trying our damndest to help him. I want to wave my index finger and make it very clear that when he steals from us, of all people, it makes us mad as hell. I want to both send him to jail and also to invite him over for dinner. I want to cuss him out and let him cuss me out because I have no idea what his world has been like. I want to scream at him and cry with him. I feel like I can see what is not right about all of this, but that I have no idea how to begin making it right.
I see the other police officer almost roll his eyes at me, fill out a trespassing form, and leave soon enough. I feel like I’ve let the cop down. I know this man will likely steal again, and that will be seen as my fault for not pressing charges now. I try to look the other police officer in the eyes, but his eyes never come up to meet mine.
I feel like I’ve let the homeless man down. I see his skin pulled tightly across the muscles in his neck, and I wonder about his drug use, I wonder what it was like to grow up a black man in the 70s at the beginning of the “drug war.” I wonder what change we might see if we spent what it costs to incarcerate a man for three months for stealing a leaf-blower on counseling, rehabilitation and community development services. I try to look him in his eyes, but they are down on the roof of the police car.
As he’s been finger-directed.
I wonder what we are doing all of this for, any of this for, when even at our best it feels like all of our hands are tied.
Soon after I see the remaining police officer unlock the handcuffs, I stick my hand out. I call our homeless guest by his first name, and he raises his hand to shake my own: a gift. He raises his eyes to meet mine: humbling reminder of our desperate humanity.
“We want the very best for you” I hear come out of my mouth. I hope it’s true as I hear myself say it.
But my hands feel tied.
Come, Lord Jesus. Make us whole, and set us free. All of us.
108 S Church