I don’t make it a habit to listen to the public comment time in St. Joseph City Council meetings, because I’m afraid that much cringing might give me a stroke or a seizure. Hats off to the council members for sitting and listening with a straight face to members of the public, many of whom show up to vent their spleens in offensive and ill-informed ways. I did, however, watch the public comment times at the last two council meetings (April 2 & 16) after being urged to do so by several people. The discussion was concerning low-income housing in St. Joseph, and the tone of it left me troubled.
At the April 2 meeting, a number of individuals came and spoke about legitimate concerns in the community where they live (which seemed to be Midtown for the most part), such as crime, declining property values, an underfunded and stretched police force, and landlords who do not keep up their property. Unfortunately, the manner in which these legitimate concerns were expressed was largely in language and generalizations that blamed poor people. The cause of the problems, according to the speakers, was the number of Section 8 housing vouchers being issued. More vouchers mean more poor people. More poor people mean more crime and drugs. No distinction was made between low income people who are involved in criminal and antisocial behavior and low income people who are not involved in such things. Just as unfortunate was the fact that no council member asked for such a distinction to be made.
I’m glad to say, however, that over the next few weeks at least one council member heard from members of the community offended by the generalizations and language of blaming the poor for society’s ills. At the April 16 meeting, Joyce Starr, council member for District 2, reported about the feedback she had received and then issued an apology on her own behalf for allowing the discussion to occur in the manner it did. (Thank you, Joyce!) Some of the speakers from the previous meeting stood up and offered the sort of non-apologies which are fashionable these days (“I apologize to anyone who was offended. . . “) There was discussion of the code of conduct for the public comment time and a desire by one council member to investigate publicly supported low-income housing, but there seemed—at least to me—to be little understanding on the part of most participants that blaming low income people does not solve the problems of our community.
Do you ever wonder why there are cries of “class warfare” when there are criticisms of high income people but not when low income people are criticized? It is because high income people have the resources to fight back when they are criticized; most of the time low income people do not. It is easy to blame the poor, because they do not have lobbyists or spokespeople or PACs or large checkbooks. Only when low income people organize together do they find a voice to repel the attacks against them. At our last two city council meetings, no one spoke for the poor. Thankfully, we have one council member who actually listens to low income people in her district (Joyce Starr) or else their voice would not have been heard at all.
In no way would I ever ignore individual responsibility for destructive behavior, but what the speakers at the council meetings and maybe even the council members seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge is the responsibility that falls upon our entire community to deal with issues of crime, drugs, economic problems, poverty, etc. When a community refuses to raise taxes in order to adequately fund a police force for a city the size of St. Joseph, resists any real effort of economic development and refuses for decades to invest in its schools, at some point that community reaps what it sows. To declare that the solution to our city’s ills can be found in limiting the number of poor people we allow in the city (which is in effect what was argued by some speakers at the meetings) is to scapegoat low income people and to absolve everyone else of responsibility.
Not long after I came to St. Joseph, I spoke at a city council meeting in favor of building a new homeless shelter. Opponents to the project claimed it would attract even more homeless people to St. Joseph and make current problems worse. Thanks to community support, the shelter was allowed to be built and five years later the number of homeless people in St. Joseph is not appreciably larger, even in a bad economy. Since that time, I continue to hear complaints that St. Joseph is a magnet for poor people who are destroying our town. It is declared that St. Joseph is too generous and we give too much to people who do not deserve it. It’s the same song different verse in recent weeks—blame the ones least able to defend themselves and take no responsibility yourself. What exactly do you expect to happen when jobs are scarce, the local government is stretched thin and most of a city’s population refuses to make any sacrifices for the common good?
As a Christian, I believe loving my neighbor does not mean making generalizations about a group of people based upon the bad actions of a few. I also believe loving my neighbor means taking responsibility for doing what I can to help the community in which I live. I am pleased to be involved with a number of faith groups in our community working to address issues of poverty and doing so in a way that seeks to respect and empower low income people rather than scapegoat them. If you also believe loving your neighbor means these things, I would be glad to help you get involved in one of these groups so you can make a real positive difference.
Grace and Peace,