Champaign, a City with No Soul

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City Government 101. On August 13 the
Safe Haven Tent City came to St. Mary at my
invitation. It was a simple act of kindness for
the homeless. They could pitch their tents
on our parish property. It was a minimum of
hospitality. The neighbors would not complain,
as had been the case when they were
camped at the Catholic Worker House on
Randolph Street. At St. Mary I am the only
neighbor and I am not complaining.
But the city official in charge of the zoning
code would have none of it. He said we
must evict the homeless because their tents
were in violation of a city code. If I did not,
the city would slam us with fines up to $750
per day for each day the violation continues.
I responded with a letter noting that at
St. Mary we were following another and
more important code. It is the code found
in the sacred scriptures of many different
faiths. It is this: “Do unto others as you
would have them do unto you.”
This is spelled out in my religious tradition
in “the works of mercy.” Giving shelter
to the homeless is a work of mercy. The
city wants to interfere with my parishioners’
practice of religion on our church
property. In offering simple hospitality to
the homeless, we wish to reverence the
humanity of those without a safe place to
sleep. The human person is of greater
importance than the city code.
In addition I noted that “under Illinois’
Religious Freedom Restoration Act Illinois
municipalities are prohibited from enforcing
their zoning laws which impose a substantial
burden upon religious institutions
and their exercise of religion.” The city’s
response to this was that a challenge to
their application of the city code would
have to be addressed in court.
The result has been that the illegal tents
have been removed and our guests have
been sleeping on the floor in the parish
center. In this case being indoors is not
necessarily an improvement. Having fifteen
to twenty people sleeping in one large
room offers no privacy. At least tents provide
privacy and a place to stash one’s gear.
But at present there is a measure of safety, a
most important issue for the homeless.
I think there is some benefit to me to
have been bullied by the city officials about
the tents. It is a small experience of the way
that the poor endure insult and injury,
even great harm, by official policies day in
and day out.
In a recent op-ed piece in the New York
Times, Barbara Ehrenreich writes that it is
almost illegal to be poor. She notes that
“city officials boast that there is nothing
discriminatory about the ordinances that
afflict the destitute” when they are caught
engaging in the ordinary “necessities of
life, like loitering, sitting, lying down, or
sleeping.” She concludes that “in defiance
of all reason and compassion, the criminalization
of poverty has actually been
intensifying as the recession generates
more poverty.”
Whatever legal problems we may have
at St. Mary, I suggest that there is a serious
problem at city hall. It is a lack of soul. City
officials are in denial about the indignity
and misery that many local citizens suffer.
Responsible city officials should get their
heads out of their code books and seek
solutions to the very real and increasing
problem of homelessness.

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