I don’t know who said it first – or when – but there is a phrase which states: "Never discuss religion or politics in polite company"
For the most part, I guess that’s pretty good advice because those are two topics which can create quite a ruckus even between the best of friends.
Yet, despite how good advice it may seem, I blog about homelessness. And religion and politics are often a part of the mix.
Case in point –
On Tuesday, I read an article in The Times Leader about the Holy Family Church in Sugar Notch, Pennsylvania.
Holy Family Church has become a part of a non-profit group named VISION which provides shelter to the homeless using a rotating list of churches. Each church "hosts" the homeless for a week or two at the most.
Originally contacted by VISION director, Vince Kabacinski, sometime this past October, Holy Family Church planned on providing shelter to the homeless for a week beginning on January 11th, 2010.
That’s the "religion" part of this post.
Now for the "politics" part.
Sugar Notch Councilman Herman Balas – who, by the way, happens to be a member of the church – in his political capacity, sent a letter (by register mail) to the church informing them that if they did provide shelter to the homeless they would be violating zoning ordinances and would face a $500 fine for each day they provided shelter.
I’ll admit that I don’t know enough about the zoning ordinances in Sugar Notch to make an informed opinion whether or not the church would be breaking any local laws. But I most certainly recognize prejudice and NIMBY-ism when I see it. And in this case, there is plenty of both coming from the local government.
To be fair, Councilman Balas claims that he has the best interest of his constituents in mind. And perhaps he does. However, it seems to me that he and his fellow council members may be going a bit overboard.
One of the councilman’s "concerns" is that "… some of the men who could be staying in the shelter could be violent or drug users or have shady pasts."
According to Mr. Kabacinski, the shelter program allows only those who are drug and alcohol free to participate in the program. Furthermore, each person is "breathalyzed" and random drug tests are also performed.
That however, doesn’t seem to be good enough for Councilman Balas, who said,
"What if one fails the test and they just let him go on the street. It’s a situation that could get real bad real fast."
I found it interesting that Councilman Balas stated, "… it’s not that I hate homeless people." Yet he offered no reasonable or alternative solution to leaving them out on the streets in the cold – the very place where it "… could get real bad real fast."
This leads me to conclude that Councilman Balas probably has no objection to a church offering the homeless shelter – providing, of course, that it’s not in his town.
What I found saddening about Councilman Balas’ line of reasoning is that it was based on homeless stereotypes. He allowed those stereotypes to color his thinking and, consequently, influence his political actions.
According to a second Times Leader article, Holy Family Church still intends to shelter the homeless that week despite the threat of being fined.
In addition, the article mentioned that Mr. Kabacinski had been "fielding" telephone calls throughout Monday and Tuesday, and that: "Two of the callers pledged to pick up the tab for one day’s worth of fines."
Out of curiosity I checked to see what the weather was like in Sugar Notch last night.
It was 25 degrees at about 11 PM. I also noted that that part of Pennsylvania is having lower than normal temperatures for this time of year.
I wonder how Councilman Balas would feel if he were on the receiving end; if he were the one who had to sleep out on the street, exposed to the elements in below-freezing temperatures?
I wonder how he will feel if one of the local area homeless is found frozen to death during the week of January 11-18; knowing that if he had not fought to keep Holy Family Church from providing them shelter that person might still be alive?
Or will he just shrug his shoulders and not give it any thought at all?
Councilman Balas seems to have forgotten that he is a public servant sworn to serve the members of the community – regardless of whether they are housed or homeless.