Fixing Social Ills

As a theologian, I unsurprisingly sometimes think about the poor. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew prophets spend most of their time on but two issues: idolatry and the treatment of the poor. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, recorded in the New Testament, he says that the “poor” are “blessed” or “happy.” And then the poor are described more broadly than we have a tendency to do in our modern world. Rather than being limited to those suffering from financial deprivation, the poor include the persecuted, the humble, those seeking righteousness, and even the sad. He also tells us that the entire Bible is summed up in one command: to love God and to love people.

A few years ago, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Steve Lopez, published a book entitled, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. (Putnam, $25.95). Edward Humes reviewed it in the LA Times on Monday, April 21, 2008.

Humes writes that Lopez happened upon a homeless man named Nathaniel Ayers on a Los Angeles street. He stopped and chatted with him after hearing him playing Beethoven on a violin missing some strings. After doing a bit of research, he discovered that the man’s claim to having been a former prodigy and student at Julliard School in New York was actually true. Lopez turned this into a newspaper column; the response was immediate, with several people offering Ayers cellos and violins. Lopez became the conduit for the gifts, and inadvertently found himself involved in the homeless man’s life. He had dropped out of Julliard after drifting into mental illness (schizophrenia) at age 21. Now in his fifties, he had spent most of his life on the streets.

Lopez found that solving the man’s problem and improving his condition was not easy. Simply putting him in a clean apartment and giving him money wouldn’t undo his mental illness nor put him back on track to becoming a musician. He was accustomed to living in a way that simply giving him cash or a pill wouldn’t solve.

Lopez’s experience with Ayers illustrates the problem of solving an issue like homelessness: there is no quick fix for it. It is labor intensive: Lopez spent enormous amounts of time with a person who suffered severe mood swings, whose mental illness was acute and severe. The experts that Lopez contacted were divided on how best to treat Ayers and no matter what course was chosen, years of therapy and a lifetime of medication were inevitable. Would Ayers even go along with it? And if he did not choose to participate, or did not keep up on his medication, then what?

Lopez’s experience with Ayers illustrates the problems that friends and family of the mentally ill face every day, every week, for months and years at a time. For most of the homeless, they have burned through all the friends and family they had—people who loved them but simply got worn down after years of struggle without improvement or change. They did not know how to help a person suffering with severe mental illness.

Obviously, the solution to the problems Ayers and the other homeless people suffering from serious mental illnesses, is hard. Any improvement in the lives of the homeless is going to take a lot of work by a lot of very dedicated people over a long period of time. They may go years without seeing any progress. How many people are able to keep working through problems that, despite great effort, remain unfixed?

Donating money to those who choose to devote themselves to working with people like them is one approach. Choosing to become a mental health worker who works with the homeless would be another way to help. Volunteering, getting churches and other non-profit organizations to become involved and to dedicate the manpower and time to the effort, along with their limited financial resources, would be another.

The long-term goal of such efforts is to help such people become as productive and as self-sufficient as possible. Short term goals may be as simple as ensuring that they have food and a safe place to sleep for a night. It must be understood that the effort will be difficult and the results will inevitably be mixed; not everyone is going to be able to be fixed, since, in a very real way, those you would be trying to help must be willing to accept the help and be willing to put in the effort needed to become well again.

As with most social sorts of problems, if the solution was easy, there wouldn’t be a problem to begin with. Those who expect or demand immediate ends to these problems will be disappointed. Those who imagine that electing “the right people” to political office will somehow alter reality, are also doomed to disillusionment. Jesus also said that we would always have the poor with us. It is a job that will never be over; even as one Nathaniel Ayers is helped, a dozen more will spring up in his place.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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