Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Homeless Men at Old First

Their names are Robert Royster, Will Franklin, and Frank. They cause me a great deal of trouble, and lots of anger from our neighbors, and I do wish they would go away, but, whatever else, they remain human beings, images of God, and they need to be treated with respect.

People keep asking why don't we get rid of them. We can't. We've tried. Believe me, we have tried. They have abused our hospitality, they piss on our building, they leave food around, they leave garbage all over, they play their radio at great volumes (God forgive me, I have had to resort to theft against them to deal with that one). They are a pain in the neck. But we will not treat them as less than human beings.

We have tried to get rid of them. We've discovered the hard way that we can't do it, we can't beat them. Whenever I chase them away, they just wait an hour, two hours, and they come back. I go home at night, and they come back. No matter what we do or say, they come back.

I will confess a strong desire inside myself to just let them be. It's Jesus' church, not mine, not ours, and the New Testament is very clear about our hospitality to the poor. "The poor you will always have with you." The parable of Lazarus. Etc. You get the point. And there is no asterix pointing to a codicil that says, "the nice poor."

But at the same time I recognize we belong to a community, and the church has the responsiblity to be a good neighbor, and if the guys scare the kids, and make lewd comments at women and passersby, and if they leave food scraps around for vermin to get at, etc. etc., then, well, I know that the church has to be a good neighbor. So we decided this last July that they absolutely had to go. We tried to get rid of them. As I said, we couldn't.

We chased them away every morning. They came back every night. We threw out their stuff. They found new stuff. Only now they started getting even more hostile, to us and to other passersby. We finally found that we couldn't beat them, and the only thing was to try to control it. Yes, they beat us.

The cops can't do anything either, apparently. If you call them, you have to wait there, on the spot for about half an hour till the cops come, and all they can say is "Scram," and they give you dirty looks for taking up their time, and half an hour later the guys are back.

The cops have to catch them in the act of public urination or public consumption of liquor, which are misdemeanors, and mean nothing to anyone, or catch them inside the building, which is trespassing, and might mean a trip to Rikers Island, but Rikers is already over-crowded and they don't want to put vagrants there.

Why are they there at Old First? Easy. The money is good on Seventh Avenue. The money dries up, the guys go. Where I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant there are no panhandlers. Up at Ethical Culture the front porch is deeper and drier, but people don't give out money on PPW.

Old First is the only church on Seventh Avenue without a fence. That's important to us, we love it that people sit on our steps and that kids run on the top of our little wall. And that's also why they are at Old First.

Today, again, I cleaned up their garbage. Waddayagonnado. But I will not remove their sleeping bags. Some of our neighbors think I should do that. But that's a moral line I will not cross. The Torah is very clear, that you should not take from a poor man what keeps him warm at night. Leaving their filthy sleeping bags there is my little attempt to be moral in this whole thing, and honor the basic dignity the Torah assigns them.

I used to talk to them and pray with them. I used to be able to reason with them. That's no longer possible. They're drinking 24/7 lately. They are nasty to me too. How long this will go on I do not know. In the short term, it's people giving them money that keeps it going. In the long term, they are killing themselves. If they manage to get arrested, they will get cleaned up at Rikers, and we'll have them back in February!

Before Robert had descended to his current condition, and when he had sober moments, he used to pray very moving prayers for certain people in the area. for poor children, for illiterates (such as himself), for soldiers, for forgiveness of his sins. I hate what has become of him. I always knew it would be coming.

It's a grief, and we're at our wits end. We have been unable to find any solution. In a strange way, the three of them are in control. Robert, Will, and Franklin.

They have names. They have souls. They belong to our community. They tell us something about ourselves.


andy said...

Maybe we all need to take shifts helping clean up, since 7th Avenue is so public and as you point out, the neighborhood tacitly demands that your stoop is public space. It would echo your observation that this difficult reality tells us something about ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps another route would be to simply hang up a few signs suggesting that giving them so much money is what keeps them there. This might stem the flow of 7th Avenue's wealth into their hands, where it's obviously going to liquor and portable radios (I walk by the church every evening, they are a permanent fixture).

I often think about how the Park Slope homeless earn a wage that would put most third world nations to shame. Many of the people on 7th Avenue do not appear to be homeless, just from poorer neighborhoods who figured they could earn some decent pocket money by sitting outside of delis. And it works.

The three I usually see in front of the church don't appear to be entrepreneurs, just drunks living it up. I'm not a religious person, but I do think we must help the poor. But when the poor resist everything that could possible help them, we simply must change course.

amarilla said...


Thanks so much for your honesty and openness about this problem you've been having.

For some reason, I've been wanting to talk to you about St Francis and the leper, it's such an important teaching right now, that we use the world as a mirror to discover what we've split of in ourselves, what we despise others, in order to grow in compassion for everyone and everything.

You're doing it! I can't say how deeply happy it makes me to have spiritual leaders in our community with your commitment to truth and inquiry. I'm weeping for joy. And loving Brooklyn more than ever.


mike said...

i have an idea,

start preaching the gospel and reading the bible to them.

that will make them leave, i know i would if i heard that church babble!

what a freakin saint you are!
compassion for the homeless as long as they dont poop, piss, drink, eat, beg, curse, etc.

Old First said...

Responses to your comments.
First, thank you for commenting.
Second, I received two anonymous comments. It's my policy not to publish anonymous comments, but the one did include an email address, so I have posted that.

To Andy: your comment is an example of the community embracing the problem, that them being at Old First is not just an Old First problem, but a community problem.

To Amarilla: thank you. I'm embarrassed, as a Christian, not to know the St Francis and Leper story. Could you post it?

To Mike: I will let your comment speak for itself. Judge us as you will. Only know this: they already read the Bible themselves. Sometimes on their radio they listen to a fundamentalist station which has continuous Bible reading. Robert has told me in the past that, since he can't read, Will helps him out by reading the Bible to him.

I know this because I talk to them. One freakin saint to another.

Daniel Meeter

Glenda said...

My friend commented: hey do what my mother used to do to get rid of stray cats PUT DOWN MOTH BALLS!!!!!!!!!!!!
put up a gate!

I also liked another comment which indicated you should put up a sign about giving these people money. It's ridiculous that these people are becoming violent.

Leon said...

The quality of mercy is not strained;

But Lord, O Lord, it sometimes has you pained.

--Leon Freilich

mike said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kevin said...

You are a wonderful writer. Thank you for hammering home that these men have names. To whom much is given, much is expected. These men are given support--even a quick guilt-reducing buck is support--by the neighborhood and so they are PART of that neighborhood. Just as Old First is asking difficult questions about being a neighbor, these men should too. Which is easy for me to write... I'm the type to walk by and think of them until I remember I need something at Key Food and then POOF gone. Because of your proximity and, more so, your integrity, you don't have that luxury.
About St. Francis and the leper. It's a good one for Park Slope. Francis, like Park Slopers, was a little prissy. As much as he was called to do good, he was brought up well and some of that lingered. So when he passed a leper on the road he was seized with revulsion. But he decided to beat it. To be better than that. He got off his horse, took the hand of the leper, and kissed it. Sometimes the story sounds easy--like he was just "sure it would be fine." I think it was hard. Just as it's hard to do a loit of things we know we're called to do. Anyway, the leper hugged him, which was huge for both of them. And Francis got back on his horse and off he went. But when he turned, the leper had disappeared. He claimed it was Jesus and held the memory of taht embrace forever.
It's tough. This is real life. The leper may not hug you back. The homeless man may pee on your front door. He may call a girl a name. But thank you for raising the question: Will we get off the horse?
Sorry, this is so long. You really got me thinking.

James Brumm said...

I don't know that I'm a saint (except for my faith telling me so), but I'm a freakin' something.

I've been wondering how to respond to this posting since last night, and it has been on my mind. These comments were helpful, and I agree that the community must embrace the issue for there to be any significant, positive change, either for the neighborhood or the church.

I also applaud your adherence to Torah, especially when it makes everything harder for you. This is also a crucial witness to the community. Who knows how God will use it?

In the meantime, I would remind you of the story of the man who awoke one day to find a gigantic boulder outside his house. He heard God's voice telling him to push the boulder up the mountain. Each day, he pushed the huge rock, to little avail, from dawn to dusk. Each night, as the man slept, any small progress he had made would be lost to gravity. Finally, the man died, and he was in tears when he met his Maker. "Why are you crying?" God asked. "I never told you to move the boulder, just to push it."

Old First said...

Mike wrote a second comment, but it is so mean-spirited I decided not to print it.

In answer to his further suggestions, in defense of Old First, we do welcome them inside, and we do share food with them when we dinners and coffees, etc.

I have offered work to them, for a fair wage, but they always refuse. Who can blame them, when they can make a lot more money by pan-handling?

The main reason that most churches in the US are closed is because of our heavy, heavy insurance costs, especially on liability. Churches are a favorite target of lawsuits.

Old First said...

From David, via email:

I personally am not offended by homeless, panhandlers, etc. Many of these folks come here because the Slope is safer than many other neighborhoods. So in a way we can offer a sanctuary for people in need. That said, it's easy for me to say that because they're not on *my* stoop!

I wonder if the Ready, Willing, and Able guys (a.k.a. "Doe Fund") could give the Church some extra attention as they make their rounds? Or maybe we could get the homeless guys into Ready, Willing, and Able?

Re: relieving oneself in public: definitely a problem, and unclear what the solution could be... port-a-san stationed in 7th Ave.?

At any rate we should consider this a community issue. Perhaps I could interest the Park Slope Civic Council in engaging with this issue.

Old First said...

Thanks for this David.

Some European cities have public pissoirs.

To get into the DOE Fund program, you have to have been in jail, and gotten clean, and reached a certain point of trustworthiness.

We are grateful to the DOE Fund guys who have adopted the front of our church and do help to clean it. But they're not supposed to clean on Carroll Street, so they don't.

andy said...

Here is an attempt to help think through the problem from your neighbor the rabbi. I'm ready to help.

Anonymous said...

I am an outsider who just happened to be researching my family father's name is also Robert Royster but he is a respectable business owner with a wife and children. I am a therapist in Chicago from my experience I have observed that the majority of homeless people are in fact mentally ill and are just medicating with their drug of choice. Poverty is ugly and these men have a right to exist just as we do. I know they are nuisances but I believe that in life we should be tolerant and understanding no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. They will not be erased or ignored or displaced. Just accept them for what they are and try to exist peacefully and with tolerance. And I would ask myself...what is this situation supposed to be teaching me at this moment.