Finding Friends of God on the Streets of Seattle
And Listening to the Dreams They Offer the World
She said it with a cool indifference, and like she meant it: “If I stayed in Salt Lake City, I would have killed myself.” She said she had options. She had an underwear drawer full of “benzos.” She could cook a lethal overdose of heroin.
The drugs weren’t really for lethal possibilities. They were medications, she said—psychic shields to absorb the pain pillaging her mind.
She had just lost her housing in a downtown warehouse called “the Absurdity Den.” Losing her housing meant more than losing a room. It meant losing a spiritual home. At the Absurdity Den she lived with young adults trying to build a more equitable world.
Defeated, she came home to her favorite people. To the people, rather, who used to be her favorite people: to her parents, Stan and Michelle Bloch.
She came home somewhat afraid. She wasn’t sure her parents would accept her as their daughter, rather than their son. While living at the Absurdity Den, she grew further into who she always knew herself to be.
When she told her parents one night over dinner, her father’s fork slammed against his dinner plate. Nervously, her mother clasped her knees. An agonizing quiet filled the room.
They gave her an ultimatum, she said: stop “this talk” of queering your gender and “transitioning,” or find a new place to live. You can stay here, they said, but only on that condition.
She told me a dam inside of her broke. Like her internal walls bled raging, painful waters. The intimate rejection wounded her. That wound shook, trembled, convulsed.
They weren’t even conservative Christians, she said. They were secular Jews. They were progressive, for God’s sake.
Later that day, she smoked a cigarette on a picnic table at a park with her girlfriend. She told her girlfriend what happened. She explained how her fears had been realized and how, once again, she lost more than a room. She lost the kind of place we all seek inside of us when the world wounds us.
She cried and cried into her girlfriend’s shoulder. She shook, trembled, convulsed. So, on that picnic bench in 2017, she decided not to die. Like so many other “street kids” I got to know in Seattle, she hit the road, first traveling to San Francisco and then, when she couldn’t find work or housing, Seattle.
On the road, she gave herself a new name. Drawing inspiration from Latin American activists like Che Guevara, she named herself “Guerrero de la Libertad.” For herself and others, she is Freedom Warrior.
I met Guerrero in front of a music venue in Seattle. By this time, she had been sleeping on the streets, in homeless shelters, and abandoned houses. We spoke about our mutual interest in mysticism and our shared belief in the politics of love.
In Guerrero, I imagined that I met a friend. Since I knew we weren’t friends—not yet, anyway—I began asking myself what would it mean to befriend someone like Guerrero. Could we be friends, anyway—me as a housie and she as a street kid?
This essay is a response to those questions. It proposes that we can befriend our neighbors experiencing homelessness by creating cultures of compassion where the wounds of rejection people suffer from might be healed through radical acceptance.
I have spent more than three years getting to know people living on the streets of Seattle. During this time, I have heard a lot of stories about how people became homeless. The stories vary. To be sure, there is no one “becoming homeless story,” just as there is no one kind of person who is homeless. In almost all of the stories, though, the theme of deep, painful rejection comes up. Rejection from family, school, landlords, churches. People spoke of rejection as a spiritual wound inflicted by a cruel culture. The pain of that wound was fiercely real. Like a dog on a bone, it gnawed at the soul.
When people speak about living with the wounds of rejection, I am reminded of the theologian Soren Kierkegaard’s concept of despair. Despair, Kierkegaard wrote, is experienced—whether one is conscious of it or not—when life as it is being lived becomes unlivable. When the air of possibility has been sucked out of one’s spiritual lungs. Getting out of despair becomes a question of survival, of finding a way to keep breathing to become really alive.
Homelessness is a wildly complex social problem. Few cities know that better than Seattle, which has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation. Every year, Seattle spends millions upon millions of dollars trying to reduce the problem of homelessness. Despite the money spent, however, the problem does not appear to be getting much better.
Understandably, a large number of people in Seattle are upset. They cannot stand that so much money is being spent on a problem that doesn’t appear to be getting better. That their streets and parks and highways continue to be full of homelessness. And not just homelessness, they say, but crime. And not just crime, but needles. And not just needles, they say, but filth. And not just filth, but disease.
Some Seattle residents began fighting back against a city they think has been struck dumb with reckless spending and phony compassion—against a government they think is creating homelessness, not solving it. A number of months ago, KOMO News in Seattle aired a film entitled “Seattle is Dying.” For some, the film watched like a wakeup call and a rallying cry.
“Seattle is Dying” said that Seattle is sick. It documented the sickness by showing images of people on the streets using drugs and acting crazy. It said that people who are homeless are destroying the beauty and prosperity of one of America’s finest cities. The film argued that people experiencing homelessness need “tough love,” not phony compassion from Uncle Sam. It encouraged people in Seattle to dream a dream, one of a tough police force that ships people experiencing homelessness off to a prison on an island if they don’t clean up their trash and sober up.
“Seattle is Dying” is scaring other cities, as well. It is scaring Spokane, the city in eastern Washington I moved to after I finished my fieldwork in Seattle. Recently, a film called “Curing Spokane” hit our virtual airways. It has the same script: homeless people are a social disease destroying business, beauty, and wellbeing. We should be afraid—and intolerant. The cure for the disease of homelessness, which they misleadingly reduce with street homelessness alone, is refusal and criminalization.
I want to suggest that these so called “documentaries” are telling pretty much the opposite of the story their creators think they are telling about people who live on the streets. Homelessness is the not the real sickness we are suffering from. The real sickness we are suffering from is the gaze of rejection, of which most of us are unconscious.
This spiritually violent gaze looks at people who are suffering as a problem that can be cured through rejection. It is blind to underlying social problems that create both suffering and our inseparability from our most vulnerable neighbors. This kind of looking stabs the tender wounds of rejection from which people who are homeless are already suffering.
Rejection is the sickness, not the cure. The cure is radical acceptance for people experiencing homelessness and faith that we can come together to create safe spaces for all people to have a home. That takes new ways of seeing, new ways of dreaming. When I get to know people on the streets, I usually ask about their dreams—what vision people have for their lives, that is, and what motivates them to keep going despite the tremendous difficulty of living life on the streets. After listening to hundreds of dreams of people who are homeless, I can say that three kinds of dreams are most salient: self-sufficiency, recovering meaningful relationships, and making a positive contribution to the world.
People dreamt of being free from addiction. Of healing relationships that felt impossible to heal from. Of meaningful work. Of getting off the streets and serving people down on their luck. One person told me that he dreamt of giving people the answer. He said didn’t know the answer yet but that he did know the question. The question, he said, is how to help people show more love and compassion. One day, he said, he is going to stand in front of a million people and give them an answer.
A former street kid, who has become a friend, dreams of being a good father. He dreams this dream every day. He dreams of being someone his daughter can look up to. Of being a force in the world that helps her see beauty and know that she is loved.
For the past year, I have been working on my dissertation—writing, that is, about the people on the streets I’ve gotten to know in order to create something that might be a small part of the solution to the problem of homelessness. During this time, I have also been spending a lot of time with two Christian groups, Jesuits and Quakers.
You might not expect it, but Jesuits and Quakers have a lot in common. Perhaps most obviously, both groups teach that being a Christian literally means being a friend to Jesus. Quakers are members, after all, of The Society of Friends, and Jesuits are “companions of Jesus.” Both likewise teach that being a friend to Jesus means being a friend to other people—especially those who are really hurting.
Friends—Quakers, Jesuits, and other companions of Jesus—must see the individual and the social. We care for the tree in front of us and the forest it lives in. Above all, we must see all people on the basis of their dreams, not their nightmares. To do that we must invite people near, not banish them from our sight.
In this light, how we see the problem of homelessness matters. If we see homelessness as a problem due to bad individual behavior, we may tell people who are homeless get good or get lost. Homelessness will seem like a choice and personal failure. If, on the other hand, we see homelessness as a social problem, we will likely focus on the issues that really cause homelessness, such as a lack of affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage, and accessible health care.
It takes more than four walls and a roof to feel at home. Ending homelessness requires a culture that nourishes spirits that are wounded, rather than rejecting them. If we want to heal the wounds inflicted by a nation that prioritizes profit and ideology over people, we need to create humanizing spaces, spaces in which people can share and nurture their dreams within our cities, not take them away. And we need to cultivate practices of seeing those who dream in those spaces not as failed humans, but as full humans. As friends whose dreams matter, whose lives matter.
Our world needs every dream of love everyone is dreaming, for every person to burn like the incarnation of divine love that they truly are. Seeing each other—including those on the street whose lives look incomprehensibly different and difficult to housies like us—as spiritual friends is no less than the call of Christian discipleship, the mark of Wisdom itself.