(Luke 2: 6)
Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
The first time I saw the homeless was in Bombay. It was my first time in that city, and the sight of people living on the streets was shocking. I couldn't imagine how people could actually live under the street lights, raise their families next to busy roads and impatient traffic. It didn't seem normal. It wasn't natural, I told someone who responded that it was something I'd get used to. I don't think I ever did nor do I ever want to.
Years later, I saw the homeless again. This time it was in Chicago and in Washington DC and in London and other cities in the world that I visited as a tourist. The cultures and ethnicity of the homeless may have been different, but the hardness in their faces, the vacant look in their eyes, the shabbiness of their attire, the uncombed strands in their thick hair combined with their unkempt demeanor possessed a sad uniformity. Whether it was cooking on the roadside or pushing a trolley filled with their life's entire possessions, the homeless in each of these countries seemed to roam the invisible spaces of the cities they were part of, but not considered integral.
Homelessness, as I soon discovered, is not merely and solely a third world problem but a human tragedy. It is a failure at a systemic level of humanity's inability to create utopia on earth. A tangible hamartia, as it were. Also, an indication that economic systems - however GDP friendly they might be - are unable to provide that basic of basic needs: a roof above a person's head. This inability has ended up reducing man into a stray animal sharing kinship with dogs and cats that scavenge our streets for food and space. Maybe that's too harsh a thing to say, but I can't think of any other way to describe the horridness of homelessness.
According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, it is estimated that 100 million people worldwide are homeless today. That's a staggering figure and comes quite close to matching the total population of Mexico (106,350,434).
The next best thing would be to examine the statistics on a country-by-country basis, but I feel that doing so would miss the point altogether. It would only draw comparisons, and the focus will only lead to which of the country scores high on the homeless sweepstakes and which one scores way below the mark. The point here is not about creating heroes or demons amongst the countries, but to place the spotlight on homelessness as a global problem.
However, before doing so, one needs to pause and take a look at one uncomfortable fact. Not all of the 100 million people in the homeless category are there because they are helpless victims of the socio-economic system. Some of them are there as a consequence of wrong choices they've made in their life. Drug addiction, alcoholism and a life of crime that have pushed them to the streets. And then there are those who have been brought to cities under the patronage of political parties who expect votes in return.
As a result, one would be right to ask: why should we help such people? Why must we part with our hard earned money to support such freeloaders?
The thing is, logical as it may sound, doing nothing in response is also not the answer. It could also be like throwing the baby with the bath water. This is because there exist many genuine reasons for homelessness as well. The current economic crisis, for instance, has thrown many people out into the streets because of their inability to pay their mortgages on time and their inability to get a job that will enable them to pay their expenses.
On the other hand, there are those who have been pushed to the streets due to circumstances beyond their control. Lack of jobs and economic development in their rural community are key factors behind large scale migration to urban centres where low wages make it impossible for them to get decent housing.
The promise of prosperity and well being is what drives them to seek new pastures, but the reality can be disappointing and they soon learn that they have to make do with what they can get and make it work. In this case, they'd be just like Joseph who had to settle for a manger when there was no room in the inn or anywhere else. This was a situation beyond Joseph's control, and resulted in Jesus being born in a place where midwives dare not go.
The Christmas story, thus, provides a lesson on homelessness. Jesus as God incarnate could have chosen a luxurious venue for His birth on earth. However, the choice of manger as opposed to a decent and a properly ventilated room enabled Him to share a one-ness with the millions of homeless in our world today. He became homeless when He came on earth, and chose depravity over royalty. His birth showed His heart for the poor and for the unprivileged as people who matter.
It was His way to show that He is mindful of those who travel in the invisible spaces, the ones we ignore and rarely notice, the ones He chose to identify with to shame us who think we are above them all.
In such circumstances, those of us who call ourselves His followers have a choice to make. We can either rationalise the situation of the homeless as one that doesnt concern us, and continue with our comfortable lives doing all the comfortable things we usually do. Or we can engage ourselves in the debate, do something practical about it, look for a solution that is possible within our grasp, and do something that mitigates in some way the horror.
The approach we take can have myriad forms but Christ's parable on the sheep and goats provides some directions we can take:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."