- Hope on Union
November is Native American Heritage Month, and this Sunday is Hunger and Homeless Sunday in the liturgical calendar for some churches. There is a sad connection between the two.
Homelessness is not a new phenomenon; however, since we have been intentionally blind to the issue, we are shocked when we see tents on the sidewalks in our neighborhoods. Our response, of course, is that they should move to someone else’s neighborhood.
The history of the creation of the U.S. has caused millions of Indigenous People from 574 nations to lose their homes as they were forced to move to desolate patches of inhabitable and desolate lands. In the name of creating a “Christian” nation for Jesus, the founders, instead of living with their neighbors in peace, forced the native people to move from their “land of milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:15) into “parched places of the wilderness, in a barren land where no one survives.” (Jeremiah 17:6) It is amazing how those who had owned the land became the landless people on their own land.
The first “homeless” people in what is now the lower 48 of the U.S. were those on the Mayflower. They crossed borders illegally, without an invitation or permission, and squatted in natives’ backyards; they just camped in any open space they could find. The Wampanoags, who had lived on that land for more than 10,000 years, felt pity for the poor migrants, welcomed those who just showed up on their doorsteps, invited them into their homes, shared whatever food they had, showed them how to be self-sufficient on foreign land, and even helped build houses for the “homeless.” Quite different than how we are treating the new migrants.
The first housing shortage occurred in the early 1800s when millions of undocumented western European migrants came to Ellis Island on caravans of boats. Many of these poor immigrants came without means of surviving in the U.S. and ended up living on the streets and begging for food. The faith community responded by creating “soup kitchens” and “Rescue Missions,” however, there is no historical documentation of the “Christians” building homes for the newly arriving kinfolk from their homelands.
To address homelessness, the U.S. government enacted the Homestead Act of 1863, giving free land to any western European willing to migrate westward and farm the land for five years. Of course, this meant taking the land from the Indigenous People. The practice of using the new European immigrants to take the land from the natives continued until 1976 in the lower 48 states, and it lasted until 1986 in Alaska. Initially, people were given 160 acres of land to farm, but as the most challenging farming lands were settled, eventually, in the eastern Rocky Mountain plains, up to 1500 acres were given to white settlers. Natives were never compensated for all the lands that were taken from them.
The last time the U.S. saw a mass “homeless” migration was in 1930-40 during the Great Depression when millions of people ended up on the streets and the Dust bowl caused millions of people to relocate to the west coast. None of the government programs worked until the U.S. government provided free housing for millions of soldiers during WWII. After the war, the U.S. saw its greatest housing boom, but we have not seen that kind of increase in housing stock since. It appears that the current availability of low-income or affordable housing is at its historical low. The Great Recession of 2008 also brought the rate of home ownership to the lowest level in U.S. history as well.
One of the greatest social and economic issues of our time is land ownership, and the faith community is in a unique position to be engaged. Millions of prime real estate are being unused as thousands of churches sit empty on large parcels of land. There are over 380,000 church buildings and about 580,000 homeless family units in the U.S., so if 25% of churches built one 4-unit affordable apartment building, the housing shortage problem in the U.S. could be solved.