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The Quality of Mercy: Homelessness In Santa Cruz 1985-1992

Updated: May 24, 2022

by Paul A. Lee

Homelessness is not easy to think about. In fact, one would rather do something about it than think about it. It is the tradition of the pragmatic American way. The plight of the homeless demands action more than thought. Nevertheless, there is much to think about in assessing the homeless and many questions come to mind after working with the homeless for the last six years. Why has there been a growing population of homeless every year since the late 1970s? What has happened in our country that people lack shelter and have nowhere to go at night when it turns cold and dark?

Isn’t the right to shelter one of the basic human rights not to be denied anyone?

Is a philosophy of homelessness possible to develop and is this a task this book should attempt to fulfill, even though, as Tillich says, in his address on the “Philosophy of Social Work”, appended to the end of this book, beyond anyone’s power to do so?

I can’t say I develop a philosophy of homelessness in this book, but I do raise some philosophical issues and the basic theme of the book-“the quality of mercy”-was given to me as. a title before I knew what it meant in terms of the discussion developed here. I came to realize that it was a great phrase for an ethic of abundance, in this case spiritual abundance, where the measure you give is the measure you receive, not in the sense of quid pro quo. No, quite the contrary, more in the sense of a lack of measure, where the phrase-go for broke-comes to mind. We were willing to risk it and we were rewarded by the success of our programs. It has been as simple as that.

We didn’t mind taking on something beyond our power like the cause of homelessness in Santa Cruz because there were so many who were willing to help. We now have a community of people involved in the task of alleviating the misery of homelessness in Santa Cruz.

In our work with the homeless, I have been guided by a saying I had already taken to heart as a major statement, even before the homeless issue came up. It was a saying waiting for me to apply it. It provided me with food for thought in terms of a philosophy of social work even though it is a statement that seems to argue that the infinite dignity and worth of a human being is now so eroded that it has to be formulated in an almost crazily exaggerated way just to make the point. The principle was formulated around 1910, by Josef Popper-Lynkeus, a Viennese social reformer and scientist, who was a figure of great inspiration for many who knew him, such as Einstein and others. Freud revered him and wrote an essay about him, but didn’t want to meet him lest the reality disappoint the image.

Popper-Lynkeus called his statement a basic principle of a moral social philosophy:

When any individual, of however little account but one who does not deliberately imperil another’s existence, disappears from the world, without or even against his or her will, this is afar more important happening than any political or religious or national occurrence, or the sum total of the scientific and artistic and technical advances made throughout the ages by all the peoples of the world. Should anybody be inclined to regard this statement as an exaggeration, let them imagine the individual concerned to be themselves or their best beloved. Then they will understand and accept it.

These two paragraphs are deceptively short thanks to their terse pungency. They demand a very close reading in order to grasp their meaning. What is meant, for instance, by “disappearing from the world”? It is a term close to Paul Tillich’s remark about “feeling unnecessary”, a prelude to despair and hopelessness. In his remarkable book: The Courage To Be, Tillich mentions how people in the Great Depression thought they had ceased to exist because they were unemployed. Having a job in

America means existence itself. Not having a job means disappearing-ceasing to exist. You see it in the photographs of the faces of men sitting on park benches in the Depression, in the depths of despair, where they are absent from themselves. They have disappeared.

A situation was to occur within a few decades that would exemplify what Popper-Lynkeus meant by ‘disappearance’. He anticipated the ‘disappearance of the Jews’ in the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. The Final Solution, organized by Hitler and Himmler, was for the Jews to disappear. What was meant was extermination. This has to be the criterion, or the reference point, for the meaning of the word- ‘disappearance’. At the same time, millions of people ‘disappeared’ in the terror of the Russian purge under Stalin. In more recent history, there are those who ‘disappeared’ in Argentina and in Chile; those who ‘disappeared’ in China, during the Cultural Revolution; those who ‘disappeared’ in the South during the Civil Rights struggle; those who ‘disappear’ every day, somewhere in the world, of however little account, without or even against their will.

Homelessness is just such an issue of “disappearing from the world”. The homeless have disappeared right in front of our face. There they are, lying in a doorway of a store or business, on the sidewalk, in a vacant lot, abandoned and forgotten. Although this is seldom seen in Santa Cruz, where it is a criminal offense to be caught ‘sleeping’ in a public place, it is a common scene in various areas of big cities, such as San Francisco, New York, London, Amsterdam, Lisbon.

What else can “disappearing from the world” mean, in this case, where a human being has become a piece of refuse? Against this, Popper-Lynkeus poses the most exaggerated statement in the history of human thought, in order to dramatize the juxtaposition: the infinite worth and dignity of a human person against the whole sum of cultural achievements by all the peoples of the world. Not even this sum is equal to one person who has disappeared!

And then he says: if you think this is an exaggeration, (when it is the greatest exaggeration ever formulated), think of that person as yourself or your best beloved, to drive the point home, in what is known in philosophy as an argumentum ad hominem.

The idea of the infinite value and worth of a human being has eroded in this century, a century of world wars and wholesale slaughter of human lives through genocide. Popper-Lynkeus anticipated this in his odd formulation. He had to put the issue on a personal basis: think of yourself or your best beloved.

What do you value?, he wants to know. He says a person is valued on a scale from zero to infinity, which seems to imply that the value of a human being is a mystery. A human being is of incomparable worth. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

He takes umbrage with a famous German art historian who had the gall to say that all of the deaths of Greek slaves were not worth one sculpting of Phidias. That made Popper-Lynkeus mad. He proposed that the art historian suffer slavery for a few decades and then retire with an apartment at the Louvre where he could look at sculptings and think of what he said now that he has some personal understanding of it.

What would you do if there was a fire in the Louvre?, he asks. Would you save the people or the paintings? If an angel of death were to ask for the lives of two common day laborers to save Michaelangelo or Raphael or Shakespeare would you give them up for sacrifice? No, of course not.

I had a strange experience in this regard. I was at the Museum of Modern Art at an exhibition of the late paintings of Cezanne, one of my favorite artists. I turned from one painting and looked at a young woman who was a Punk, with pins in her cheeks and garish hair and I had to admit that she was of greater value than the Cezanne, another order of value. I know the difference between a painting and a person.

I think of Wittgenstein when I think of this saying of Popper-Lynkeus. He lost his sense of human decency in the trenches of the First World War and never again wore a tie lest it be thought he could resume his place in the company of decent men. It was a symbolic moment for this century’s great philosopher when the value and worth of a human being is lost along with the sense of human decency.

Paul Tillich, as a chaplain at the front, in the same war, heard the screams of his men calling on “Lieber Gott”; their screams went unanswered.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, in the trenches of Verdun, thought of the breakdown of Western culture and sketched out in his mind his great work: Out of Revolution, where he quotes Lefebvre: “Shall dogs and horses scent a thunderstorm and man and woman not sense the breakdown of a social order that has lasted a thousand years? ”

With this breakdown in Western culture came the decline of the value and meaning of humanity itself. Human beings were cannon fodder, pawns in the great wars of hostile nation states, bent upon self-destruction. And then came Hitler to fill the void.

No wonder that Popper-Lynkeus had to define the value and worth of a person negatively, when seen against the sum total of cultural achievements; one person is worth more than the sum of it all, when that person is allowed to disappear; the value reappears in the most absurdly exaggerated formulation of that value.

Does this account for the impact the homeless make on us as we go our way in our effort to ignore them, denying the moment, in the course of our lives, when we are called upon to meet the plight of a human being in need? “What we deny, in our refusal to help them, we deny in ourselves: a sense of human decency. It may be that we have reversed the Popper-Lynkeus equation: the homeless have no worth at all because we have so little sense of the value of ourselves and our best beloved. “So what?”, we say, almost one hundred years later: “I’m not worth much, my best beloved is only worth a little more, to me, and therefore the homeless are nothing!”

The sense of the infinite worth of human beings, as such, ourselves included, is no longer generally recognized or affirmed. Life is cheap and easily expendable. We have lost our sense of human decency which depends on such a valuation of infinite worth. Then Tillich’s “law of listening love”, no longer applies, because it cannot be summoned or counted on.

But this is not true.

Against all measures of skepticism and cynicism, people step forward to respond spontaneously to the depth of human need and something happens. It is almost impossible to plan and difficult to predict. It happens. And when it does, one gets a sense of “the means of grace”, still operating in our midst and the original meaning of the words: caritas and agape…Where it comes from is to be trusted.

This has been our experience in working with the homeless. We went into the effort without a plan, with little experience, in response to an emergency need. We found countless others who were willing to help, often without even calling on them to help-they appeared: with blankets, with food, with appliances, with clothing, with money, whatever was needed. There were vast untapped resources of care and concern in the Santa Cruz community that rallied to the cause to refute the prevailing notion that the homeless were unwelcome and should leave, especially if they wanted to escape a beating at the hands of the police.

One of the motives for writing this book is to thank all of you who have contributed to alleviating the plight of the homeless and who have helped make Santa Cruz a place where the quality of mercy is not strained but abundantly evident in the generosity of those who have contributed to the cause.

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