Listening to the Unheard

Part of my job over the last month has been to lend my aid to the City of Abilene/Abilene Christian University sponsored Housing Discrimination Forums. There was lots of good that came out them, and I look forward to continuing to partner with both organizations to gather more useful data on how folks experience housing here in the city. The day after a successful forum on Tuesday that was held in the Stevenson neighborhood, I announced to Freedom Fellowship in the Butternut/Chestnut that the church would host a forum the next night, and that we would love for them to attend to tell us about their experiences. I threw in that we would provide a couple of pizzas, because one of the first rules of community development is that more people show up if there's food. This was especially important to me because not only are many of the congregants of Freedom folks living without adequate housing or any homes at all, but they are also friends whom I have grown fond of over the last two years. I value these folks, and I was excited to be able to connect them to people who wanted to hear their stories and partner with them to change things for the better. I left that night encouraged, hearing from several folks that they were planning to attend to tell their stories. These were stories of absentee landlords, of lack of opportunities to acquire housing, and of the barriers they faced trying to work through a system not necessarily designed for their ease of use.

So the next day when the snow began falling in earnest, I got a little nervous. Not too long after, around 2:00 pm on Thursday, I got the call. The forum for that evening was cancelled, as was the next night's forum.

That was a blow, to be sure. And while I was frustrated to see so much work go into an event that did not occur, I was more concerned that I had no way of contacting lots of the folks whom I had invited, especially folks from Freedom with no home address to visit, no phone number to call, no email to contact. Some of the most vulnerable neighbors in our city might be going to a meeting to talk about how they'd been harmed in pursuit of housing, but the housed folks weren't going to be there to listen because it was too cold and dangerous to be outside.

Without a lot of good options in front of us, my boss Lori and I settled on the best way forward we could concoct on short notice. So at 5:45 pm, I was driving up and down Chestnut Street, hoping that I would be able to catch anyone who arrived on the church's doorstep only to find a "Housing Meeting Cancelled" sign leaned against the front double doors. We figured that, if nothing else, I could offer a ride home to anyone who walked to the meeting and a few slices of Little Caesar's to warm them up.

With the wind howling, the temperature dropping, and snowflakes falling, I kinda hoped that none of my friends had risked the bad weather, but also kinda wanted some validation that they considered the meeting important enough to attend. As I drove south, I noticed a very bundled woman with a full backpack trudging northwards. Sure enough, she was one of my Freedom friends. I rolled down the window and offered her a ride and a pizza. She gladly accepted. I didn't see anyone else on the deserted street, so we slowly headed towards a local pizzeria.

It was nice to have one-on-one time to hear more from my friend. She told me about her week, about books she'd been reading, about some housing issues she'd had, and, of course, taught me some theology. As I was taking her to the library, where she was planning to spend a few more warm hours before it closed, she asked if I wanted to see where she would be staying that night. Her only condition was that I could not attempt to find her somewhere else or talk her out of staying there. I agreed, noting that she was certainly more experienced in surviving on the streets than me and that assuming that I knew better than her would be presumptuous.

Within a minute or two, we were parked at the mouth of an small alleyway. A tiny portable toilet stood outside the back of one of the nearby buildings. She pointed to it and told me it was her roof for the night. It suddenly became much more difficult to refrain from attempting to dissuade her from staying there, but I did my best to restrain the impulse.

I dropped her off at the library, the Hot N Ready pizza box warming her hands. I thanked her for her time, and told her how much I appreciated her trying to get to the meeting. It struck me that despite the challenges she faces daily, and in some ways because of those challenges, she is exactly the kind of person to whom our city, our churches, and we as individuals need to be listening. May we be reminded that we have neighbors, both housed and unhoused, whose lives and stories are worth noticing.