Last week Anthony’s Plot community held their annual Festival of Shelters in downtown Winston-Salem. Tied to the Jewish celebration of Sukkot, when the community of faith remembers God’s care for the Israelites while they wandered through the wilderness for forty years with no home and no food, Festival of Shelters has its own form of remembering: Remember those in our city who continue to journey without home and often without food. Re-member the structures of our community so that all can find stable ground.
Russ May described this solidarity event to me as a way to practice a “theology you can feel in your bones.” Especially last week, theirs were some cold, wet, weary bones. Re-membering is no small task. Re-membering starts with a deep awareness of brokenness. Re-membering acknowledges that the experience of brokenness for any member necessitates rehabilitation by the whole. Re-membering is a relational, collective activity.
So what might it look like for our community to do some re-membering? I think we caught a glimpse of rehabilitation in action at a community meeting Thursday night. Housed and homeless neighbors talked together with outreach specialists, police officers, and city officials about the reality of homelessness, both the tears in our collective sinew, and the places of strength and growth. And let me be clear that we have both!
We have long-standing organizations that shelter hundreds of men and women on a nightly basis. We have a downtown bike patrol willing to work relationally and flexibly with folks on the streets, and a police force that has embraced the learning opportunity of Crisis Intervention Training for responding appropriately to mental health crises. We have federal funding available for housing our chronically homeless neighbors based on the nationally recommended approach of Housing First. These are places of strength.
And yet, we remember that there are still hundreds of our fellow community members without homes. We remember that there are virtually no options for folks who do not find space in one of our shelters on any given night, or who cannot maneuver within the shelter system. We remember that homelessness is often criminalized, compounding the effects of being disconnected and without alternatives. Did you know that charges such as sleeping and urinating in public are called “quality of life” charges? Can we truly improve the quality of life of our public spaces by making some of the members of that public invisible? These are tears that must be re-rememberd.
There was a noticeable shift in energy at Thursday’s meeting when we opened up for discussion with the whole group and listened to one another’s ideas. Crucial contributions came from currently and formerly homeless community members. How about a hospitality fund, and better yet a hospitality space, to help cover gaps in official services? If public urination is one of those “quality of life” concerns, isn’t a public restroom a more just community response than ticketing for a basic human necessity? What would it look like to creatively combine shelter and housing approaches to best facilitate pathways toward personally defined goals? Most broadly, how are we as a compassionate city making and valuing space for each one of our members? These are the connective, stretching questions of re-membering.
At the City with Dwellings kickoff meetings a few weeks ago, we noted that the overflow shelters have been a generative and fertile space for many of us to learn about homelessness, and that we are constantly stretching in our response to homelessness based on what we learn—most often from our most vulnerable neighbors. As we live into our “Community First” model and mission, let us continue to do this collective work of re-membering. I think we will feel the nourishing effects in our bones.
Rachel Revelle is a third-year Wake Forest Divinity student interning with City with Dwellings and a member at Knollwood Baptist Church.