I see love in lots of unexpected places: most recently, during a special encampment-to-home initiative that I and the nonprofit our church founded to address the needs of unhoused persons carried out this spring. We were tasked with moving all the people living in a single small encampment in Studio City off the street and into a special emergency hotel program we ran for 90 days. For about two weeks before the “choice date”—the day the people living in the encampment had to make a choice whether to accept the interim housing placement or not--I went down to the encampment about every other day to get to know the people who lived there. What were their stories? What were their needs? What were their hopes? There were about 18 people actually regularly living in the encampment, people who had moved from a large parking lot across the street that had become the home of a large encampment during the height of the pandemic. When the lot closed on December 15, 2021, a group of individuals relocated to the sidewalks and edges of the road across the street.
It was my responsibility as director of the organization and the encampment-to-home initiative to determine whom we would accept into the 90-day emergency hotel program. The ambitious goal was to help people find long-term housing within 90 days while they stabilized in the emergency hotel housing. We had 18 rooms for 20 ppl. At the encampment were about 18 ppl who lived there regularly, but also 2 or 3 people who would float through the encampment, sleeping at this site some nights but in other encampments or locations on other nights. The people who lived in the encampment had extremely complicated lives: former LA foster youth, vehicles recently repossessed, mental health challenges, drug addiction, physical disabilities, divorces, loss of child custody, legal problems, prison records, trauma of all sorts, Most had been living in tents for years. One lived in a van that had caught on fire and now longer ran. A couple lived in an old, broken down limo. It took almost two weeks, a couple of new tires and batteries for the limo, a couple of storage units, a lot of back and forth with the van, and a lot of patience and dedication by volunteers and staff, but we actually succeeded in getting every person who lived in the encampment to leave the street and move into the hotel program.
We took in the 18 regular residents. But I decided against taking in any of the floaters, especially one woman, who appeared to have so many challenges, she was so aggressive, and had behaviors that were beyond anything I thought I or our staff could handle. And, I wanted our pilot program to be a success: I only wanted to take in participants who were likely to be able to move into housing within 90-120 days; in my judgment, this challenging woman could not meet that goal. I told her we couldn’t take her into the program. And she became even angrier, and cursed and pleaded. But that was my decision. I was not going to take her into the program.
Fast forward about a week: the woman whom I had rejected from the hotel program had figured out where her friends from the encampment were living, and had found a way into the hotel. She had moved into the room of one of the participants we had given a room to. And to make matters worse: I had been called to the hotel on an emergency because the woman I had rejected had overdosed in the room. Thanks to the fact we were running a harm-reduction program and we had Narcan readily available, the woman did not die. When I got to the hotel, I was glad, obviously, that she had survived; but to be honest, I was also angry. Angry that she had broken the rules that I, Pr. Stephanie, had set. Angry that the people we had taken into the hotel program weren’t playing by the rules either—they had signed statements they wouldn’t let anyone else stay in their rooms—and had taken her in. Whatever the circumstance, I was intent, though, to stick by the rules. And so, once the woman was feeling better later in the day, I threw her out of the hotel. Of course, just a day or two—or maybe just even an hour or two--later, she was back. In another person’s room. And she wouldn’t leave.
When I talked to the participants in the program, the ones who were supposed to be in the hotel, they told me: “We know the rules, but we can’t throw her out. We know her from the street. She needs help, maybe even more help than we do. We’ll take care of her.”
I was annoyed. But I knew there was little I could do to keep her out of the hotel, even with the hotel's security guard. So for the remaining weeks of the program I ignored her. I knew she was at the hotel in somebody’s room, somewhere, but I pretended she wasn’t. Until the program ended and we were able to get her a bed in an interim shelter site in the City.
For those remaining weeks of the program, I ignored her. I was annoyed, but I also felt convicted. I kept thinking of the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the start of the encampment-to-home initiative, I thought I was the Good Samaritan, but I turned into the priest who walked by on the other side of the road. And I had thought that the unhoused people we moved from the encampment were the assaulted man lying on the side of the road. But they turned out to be the Good Samaritans.
Life is complicated. Doing the work to end homelessness can be complicated. But mercy is clear. Jesus asks: “Who do you think is a neighbor to the man who falls into trouble?” The Lawyer answers: “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus replies: “Go and do likewise.” Go and do likewise. For mercy is love.