While the bombs exploded in Nice, France a young woman thousands of miles away cried on the back lawn of a friends house. “I want to be good. I am good. I hate getting in trouble.” She is reviewing the police body camera recording of an officer giving her a ticket for sleeping in her car. She is explaining that she has nowhere else to sleep. The police officer tells her, “I’ve already woken five other people up in their beds in their cars and they moved on peacefully.” He is frustrated at her lack of compliance. She is frustrated at her lack of a place to close her eyes for the night.
No one in this conversation at this time is talking about the fact that in a tiny town largely considered affluent, the police are waking up people, five at a time, sleeping in their cars for lack of a home.
Bonnie is my friend. She stays with me sometimes when it becomes too much. On this night she chooses to take the ticket because she is an activist for the poor. She finds herself in solidarity in her own situation and hopes that by going to court she can give voice to the problem–being homeless is not legal. You cannot sleep in your car, you cannot camp, you cannot lounge on the sidewalk or open spaces with your pet and its becoming more difficult to find a place to eat–even in a park.
The ticket given to her and anyone in her situation is 110 dollars. If you have no money for a place to live how do you have money for this ticket?
In this community of Ashland, Oregon there is an urban myth that these tickets are routinely dismissed. That’s not true. I observed Bonnie in court and the five others who had tickets that day and Judge Turner told them all she does not have the discretion to lower their tickets. If Bonnie or any of the other folks there that day do not make payments on tickets should they plead guilty or be found guilty the cost will rack up and eventually, even if they are able to pull themselves out of the most punishing form of poverty and get a job, their checks will be garnished. For some a warrant will be issued.
Yes, being poor is illegal.
Not just in the good ole US of A but all over the world. When people are marginalized, unheard and grindingly poor so that they are sleepless and hungry these people can become violent. Does this surprise anyone?
Ultimately being silenced, being poor, being forced from a home, losing family in one sense or another creates a person with no support and nothing to lose. All the great civil rights leaders from Jesus to Martin Luther King understood this. It is why we are called to help. It is loving and kind but it is also practical.
I want to stop violence in the world and in my town. The best way I know how to do this is by following the advice to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless. I wish I could do that in Syria, Nice and Mexico. But I am here–now–in this place on this back lawn watching my friend cry.
A dove lands on a rooftop. She symbolizes peace. I know that peace and love will come as it always does. I know that once it was legal for children to toil in American factories and die there. It was once legal to kill a black person for being black and leave their bodies hanging in public. Being ruthless is not new to humanity. We have always been like this but we have also always been capable of change, of love and of nobility.
When we see the dove and the hurt and the fault in our communities and us–we have the chance to change.
Belief becomes reality. Bonnie says words are spells. Let these words be a spell to cast peace in our day–to make being homeless not a crime but an occasion to come together in love and peace.