What Money Can’t Buy

Everyone applauded it as a great victory for the homeless. In Santa Ana, California, dozens of homeless people had camped out on the lawn of the Civic Center, living in makeshift tents stretched between shopping carts. Neighbors complained that the homeless people were drunk and rowdy, so police moved in to clean up the area. They arrested about 30 people on petty charges like littering and loitering. But the homeless had friends in high places--advocate lawyers who took the police department to court, claiming it had violated the homeless people's rights. And they won! The court ordered the city of Santa Ana to pay damages of $11,000 per homeless person. That was enough to start a new life: rent an apartment, buy a car, find a job. Hope ran high. Here was one group of homeless people who were going to get a shot at starting over. A few of them took the shot. They went back to their families and tried to put the money to good use. But for most of the people, the $11,000 made no long-term difference at all. They continued to be plagued by the same problems that had made them homeless in the first place--afflictions no amount of money can cure: drug and alcohol addiction, mental instability, and lack of basic living skills. For these people, the sudden gift turned into a temptation to indulge their weaknesses--a temptation they couldn't resist. They moved into motel rooms and spent the money on drugs, booze, and partying. A 36-year-old woman reports that she rented a luxury car, picked up her friends, and they cruised the city getting drunk. One by one, as their money ran out, they filtered back to the streets. Today all but nine are back in their old haunts, sleeping under park benches and make-shift tents. The story is disheartening--and it illustrates the error of what most politicians say about the homeless. Typically, the homeless are portrayed as stable families hit from the outside by economic troubles. All they need is some financial assistance from the government. But this describes only a fraction of the homeless, the ones who bounce back quickly. Chronic homelessness, on the other hand, is a result of deep-seated internal problems. Roughly a third of the homeless are addicts. To get off the streets, they first need to get off drugs. Another third of the homeless are mentally ill. What they need is medication and treatment. And many of the homeless lack basic life skills and self-discipline. A recent issue of Reader's Digest describes a young woman named Cindy, who had 2 children, never married, and ended up homeless because she didn't pay her rent. It turned out, she was spending her welfare checks on clothes and make-up. What people like Cindy need is to learn the basic skills of running a household and keeping a budget. Chronic homelessness is a problem that can only be solved when people are changed from the inside. Which means it's a problem suited to the Church, not the government. Inner change, spiritual transformation--that's what the gospel is all about. Solving the homeless problem doesn't just mean giving people $11,000. It doesn't even mean building more houses. It means doing the Christian work of ministering to people so they have the skills to live in those houses.


Chuck Colson


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