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Post 2: No Strings Attached

I live on a small farm/homestead and spend a part of each morning farming, which means I spend a part of each morning listening to podcasts. As a freelance writer and farmer I’m alone A LOT of the time, and when I’m not alone I’m with my kids, who are cute, but not great conversationalists about the world’s current events. Podcasts are the glorious companions that accompany on my chores in the morning or in the commute to pick my kids up from school. They keep me connected to the world. Given this fact, this likely isn’t the first time I’m going to write about a podcast, and also, this post isn’t about a podcast.

This post is about “no strings attached” approaches to providing support to people who need it. I want to highlight the work being done by Mahamed Hashi and Solomon Smith in the Brixton neighborhood of London, UK. They are the co-founders of the Brixton Soup Kitchen, a community hub that provides physical space for people, including unhoused people, to gather. They serve a daily hot meal, have a food bank, a clothes bank, a garden, a weekly book club, and a weekly legal clinic. I heard Solomon and Mahamed talk about the community hub—including why they founded it and why it’s important to allow people to access the space with no strings attached—on the British-based podacast, Melanin Millennials hosted by Imrie and Satia, two Black Women of my generation (the millennial generation). Check this episode out to get a full account of why Solomon and Mahamed started cooking for people who were hungry and unhoused in their neighborhood and how they interact with the people using the space they created. (Really, clicky click and listen to their voices after you finish reading this. I'll wait.)

Solomon Smith, co-founder of the Brixton Soup Kitchen

Solomon Smith, founder of the Brixton Soup Kitchen.

[Image Description: This is a picture of a Black man with short hair and a full-face short-clipped beard is wearing a long black t-shirt, a gold necklace, and thick-rimmed Black and gold glasses. He is standing in a well-lit kitchen, smiling, and cutting a piece of grilled meat on a striped cutting board with a knife and fork.] Photo credit: Brixton Soup Kitchen:

I think it’s important to listen to Solomon and Mahamed talk about how they approach their work because it models a joy, generosity, and kindness I often see missing from people who provide services for people living in poverty, such as community dinners or food banks. Not always missing, mind you, but often. In the United States the history of providing charity to poor and unhoused people is a history of providing aid with strings attached. Usually, these strings attached are adherence to certain behavioral codes such as sobriety, required labor, or prayer under a specific faith tradition. These practices and rules are put in place with an intention that the person with a higher class status deems as “good”— usually these good intentions are spurred by the belief that adhering to the rules will help a person transform their behavior. But, these historical examples of programs that were designed with “good intentions” and strings attached resulted in practices that contained:

1. an non-survival-aid delivery agenda, such as evangelizing and recruiting people into a religious community

2. an actual monetary benefit, such as the goods or maintenance provided by labor that is required for food or shelter that is given and/or

3. an aspect of punishment built in, such as the history of forcing “vagrants” into workhouses or prisons, or punishing unwed mothers for their “promiscuity” by excluding them even from the most basic ability to eat or be sheltered, or by giving them aid and then taking their children for being poor.

Each of these historical examples of strings-attached aid as deceptive, exploitative, coercive, or dangerous has similar practices in the current era, including taking children away from otherwise safe homes because their parents are poor or unhoused, and arresting people for crimes or violations associated with being unhoused. The use of exclusionary rules sorts people into “good” poor people and “bad” poor people and further intensifies poverty, isolation, and therefore the daily experience of harm of those deemed “bad” poor people-- these days addicts, sexworkers, queer and trans people fall into these categories for strings-attached organizations.

At this point I am imagining the “but…!!!” counter-arguments many people form at this point in this discussion—“but bowing your head to pray doesn’t force you to believe in a certain tradition”, “bowing your head to pray doesn’t keep you from food”, “requiring you to be sober doesn’t mean you can’t eat—you can choose not to drink before going to the soup kitchen for the day”! These are rational arguments made by people who experience them as theoretical, and by people that have other choices. These arguments ignore the daily lived experience— the mental and emotional and spiritual experiences—of being a human trying to both physically survive and emotionally maintain a semblance of a sense of self.

First, let us consider the overwhelming evidence that when people are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, they often can’t make a rational and calculated choice to put off drinking until a later time, or stop it all together simply because a shelter they need to sleep in says they should. Sobriety-based programs create an underclass of poor people who are excluded even from the most basic life-sustaining aid because they have a medical and chemical addiction. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have programs to help people exit addiction—WE ABSOLUTELY SHOULD. People need that help and support. But people shouldn’t be excluded from the basic resources to stay alive such as food or shelter because they haven’t yet achieved sobriety, or may never. In my writing over the next couple of months I will often turn to the very crude technique of flipping the argument and asking you to consider the un-named end-result of moral arguments—in this case, to say that people who are not sober should not be able to eat or receive shelter from community supported resources is to say people who are intoxicated or addicted should be dead. Right in that moment. I know, that's upsetting. If you believe people should be sober before receiving aid, you probably feel strongly that you don't mean you want people dead. But, this is the real result of policies like this. And this needs to be said because people who are housed cling so tight to these types of morally-charged principles it enables them to conveniently ignore the way that these kinds of rules and restrictions result in injury, harm, and death.

Second, let’s consider the argument that people who don’t want to pray before being permitted to eat food that is otherwise free and open to the rest of the community, should just sit quietly. I personally believe that this social norm—if you don’t believe in the faith tradition of the prayer that is happening just politely sit quietly and mind your business—is an absolutely excellent social rule when people have an actual free-will choice about how and how to dine with other humans.[1] But people who are hungry, who rely on food aid to not die or be severely malnourished, who rely on food aid to get out of the icy rain for a couple of hours, need to come to these places and eat food; to live. And when they are required to sit through a prayer or sometimes a WHOLE SERVICE of a faith tradition, they will hear and be reconciling whatever is being said. And because of the way that religious institutions have, at many times in the history of humanity, been sites of harm as well as sites of support, it might mean that a person must endure… having recurring memories of being sexually abused by a religious leader. Each and every time she sits down for a community meal in her town. Perhaps she proactively avoids any mention of Jesus or church because, despite the intention of the wider organization, that was the party-line of the pastor who harmed her. ME? I would not sit through two of those pre-dinner flashbacks. Nope. And so the meal would be inaccessible to me.

Other reasons that people might consider the cost of prayer too high a cost for a meal might be that prayers are often infused with truth-claims of the faith tradition that, intentionally or unintentionally, diminish or insult other faith traditions. I grew up protestant Christian and the litany “The one true god”—directly and sometimes explicitly in contrast with multi-deity faith traditions such as Wicca and Hinduism— is still embedded into my auditory memory of what “a prayer” sounds like. There is an open-ended number of other ways the embedded truths that are prayed out-loud might be a direct challenge to your own deeply-held sense of how the physical and spirit world operate. This is not to say that people who believe different things should not be in community together and share ideas—I believe they absolutely should. But I believe those exchanges should be between people who are at a similar social status, who have power and agency about how those discussions and conversations should go. They should happen between people who can go inside into their private home after the exchange is done and deal with any big feelings that emerged from the conversations in a safe and secure place.

These two strings-attached barriers to accessing necessary survival services might seem like small barriers to people who aren’t living the daily endurance of precarious physical survival. However, the day-in-and-day-out emotional and spiritual turmoil of surviving without a safe and stable home means that individual people make minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour decisions about how much more dismissal, harshness, judgment, or even just adherence to other people’s agendas they can take. Sleeping rough often means being moved from spot to spot on the street all day by police and shop owners. Surviving while poor often requires 100 times more bureaucracy and indifference than being upper-middle-class—when you’re required to sit for hours at service offices only to be told the worker’s gone home for the day, when you finally get into the office and then are treated harshly by the service provider merely to stay on federal medical aid, or to follow the terms of probation—it wears at your energy, your sense of self as a person whose agency and autonomy is valued by the world around you. I’m talking about all of this, followed next week by getting kicked off a bus for being .25c short, maybe called a racist slur, or a bitch, or a fag while it is happening, and in the meantime, you are late for work or your appointment. The endurance required to get through poverty and surviving unhoused requires spiritual and emotional fortitude that most stably housed people will never have to rise to.[2] Every service provider that is really about valuing human life should do everything in their power to appreciate the human that showed up in front of them. No strings attached.

Thank you for your good work Solomon, Mahamed, and all the people that make the Brixton Soup Kitchen thrive. Thank you, Imrie and Satia of Melanin Millennials for lifting up this work and sending it through the airwaves.

#Endhomelessness. Be kind to each other. Do good work.

[1] I am also, personally, pro-prayer as in “prayer’s cool! What a cool way humans have developed to manager our spiritual well-being.” But that’s ENTIRELY PERSONAL. I am not even telling you in what spiritual tradition my brain makes prayer—it doesn’t matter! It’s personal. Public and charitable aid is not personal or private--if it’s meant for others who aren’t dues-paying-members, it’s public, no matter who funds it.

[2] Those who were raised in stable, well-funded homes and communities with enough food to eat and a little money sloshing around the edges. Those who will never know. If you or someone you love experienced poverty at some short point in life, but have a superhero narrative about their own exit from poverty that centers on some great decision or strong will of endurance—know that that person is the exception, that you are the exception, and also that if we pull at the strings of that story, it will probably involve investments from other people and institutions, not your own iron-clad discipline.

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