Poverty stinks, literally and metaphorically. Being in poverty and on the streets doubly stinks. A shower and a change of clothes helps with the literal stench. For a day or so, the stench of homelessness and poverty are kept at bay. A shower, followed by putting on freshly laundered clothing, and some deodorant, is a small but significant act of resistance. Still, sleeping in one’s clothes, not having a change of clothes, and not having access to a bathroom, will inevitably lead to the odiferous return of poverty and homelessness.
I did the laundry today at Manna House. I do not have a very strong sense of smell. It is a helpful characteristic as I sort the clothes from the men who showered. But the pungent smell of human shit penetrated my nostrils as I lifted a pair of jeans out of the dirty clothes bucket. Clearly the man who had been wearing these pants had not made it to a bathroom in time.
Most likely he shit in his pants because he was denied access to a bathroom in a store or restaurant. I am sure you have seen the signs, “Bathrooms for Customers Only.” Many places go even further and keep their restrooms locked. To enter the restroom you have to ask for the key. If your clothing looks tattered, or you are dirty and disheveled, and you also happen to be Black, your chances of getting that key are severely diminished. One way poverty and homelessness stink is the systemic denial of access to bathrooms. The system stinks.
Another set of clothes in the laundry bucket gave off a systemic stink. There was a discarded blue paper suit. You get those when you are discharged from a hospital, or sometimes from jail, and you do not own any clothes. Last night and this morning was unseasonably cool. A paper suit is not much protection against the cold. I am sure the hot water of the shower was helpful in thawing out the man who was given a paper suit. The clothes we gave him to put on after his shower must have helped as well.
Slightly over twenty men showered this morning at Manna House. There are already seven women signed up for tomorrow’s showers. Another twenty plus men will sign up for showers on Thursday. They will be different than the men who showered today. Men, like the women, have access to a shower once a week at Manna House.
Manna House is a small place with two shower stalls. We practice hospitality, which means we do not want to become big. We know that size and efficiency are enemies of hospitality, of personal relationships, of knowing people by their names, and welcoming people with dignity. We encourage others to open houses of hospitality that are also sized for welcome.
We know that hospitality does not remove the systemic stench of poverty even as it helps a few remove that stench temporarily with a shower and a change of clothes. For the men that showered this morning that was no small thing. But they know and we know this hospitality is not ending poverty or homelessness. Ending poverty and homelessness requires systemic change, change to our economics and to our politics.
Such change is not on the horizon. I read in this morning’s paper that the President is proposing a budget that will bring severe cuts to a number of programs designed to help people in poverty. Provisions for food, housing, and medical care for people already in poverty will all be cut. The stench of poverty will be made worse by these shitty policies.
I doubt that the President or his advisors, along with members of Congress have ever smelt the shit left in the pants of a man made homeless by our economic and political system. I also doubt that they have spent the night outside in a thin paper suit. Maybe if they did, they would make policies that reduced instead of increased the stink of poverty. Maybe.
While we engage in the struggle against policies that stink, we will continue with hospitality. The stench in my nostrils from this morning’s laundry keeps me focused on both hospitality and justice. Both are about reducing the stink. I think that is what Jeremiah was talking about when he gave a vision of a society justly ordered, of a time in which the stink is gone.
“They will come home and sing songs of joy on the heights of Jerusalem. They will be radiant because of the Lord's good gifts--the abundant crops of grain, new wine, and olive oil, and the healthy flocks and herds. Their life will be like a watered garden, and all their sorrows will be gone” (Jeremiah 31:12, New Living Translation).
In such a time, Jeremiah tells us, everyone comes home. The abundant goods of the earth will be shared. And we will flourish from showers that do more than remove stench, they will lead to abundant life.