There has been a lot of talk that Listening House, which serves the homeless, is a detriment to its St. Paul neighborhood (“Church should help homeless, but what about neighbors?” Opinion Exchange, March 12, and other coverage). As a Listening House volunteer, I would argue the exact opposite: Listening House is an asset that facilitates the best in all of us, as it welcomes, serves and provides safe refuge for the vulnerable, making local streets safer and neighborhoods stronger.
I am a part of a group of volunteers who wash the feet of the guests at Listening House on Thursday mornings. We soak and wash sore and blistered feet that often have been damaged by ill-fitting and leaking shoes and boots. We provide new socks. Beyond these simple things, what we really offer is a ministry of presence. We listen. In the process, we have learned.
The guests are intelligent, likable, competent people who come from various backgrounds and life experiences. They have served in the armed forces, raised children, owned homes and gone to school. They have driven commercial trucks or worked as mechanics and cooks. One of them dreams of going to Paris.
Most suffered some crisis, financial or medical, or family dysfunction that precipitated their homelessness. One woman in a wheelchair told me that she was once a volunteer like me until multiple sclerosis robbed her of her mobility, her job and her home. Another young woman, recovering from a near-fatal bout with cancer, was pleased that Listening House offered clean, donated clothing that she could wear to work.
Some of these people hold minimum-wage jobs working long hours but cannot make enough money to afford housing. There are also some who are struggling with mental illness or chemical dependency and hope to enter treatment and stay sober. Some will never be able to overcome these struggles, but they are welcomed and affirmed at Listening House, because like all of us they are human, and that makes them valuable and worthy of love and respect.
At Listening House, they find a place to come in out of the cold. More than one person has told me that when they are turned away from overnight shelters that are full, they walk all night to stay warm. They are grateful to be able to sleep on a couch or even the floor at Listening House. At Listening House, they will find clean bathrooms, hot coffee and snacks, camaraderie, understanding, welcome and acceptance.
Although there are genuine neighborhood concerns and issues to be negotiated, it is to the benefit of all of us to find a just and generous solution to homelessness. The measure of a great society is how it cares for and protects the dignity of all, especially its most vulnerable and needy.
Julia Harrison lives in Woodbury.