In late July, just about a week after 20 or so souls (literally overnight) sought shelter on my congregation’s property, my 5-year-old watched our dog die on the street in front of our house.
It was an accident — Bernard was a small dog and the neighbor didn’t see him. My back was turned, but Moses watched the whole thing. Maybe you can imagine what followed — the panic, the screaming, the sobbing. Maybe you can also imagine what has happened since: replaying the accident; worrying that he or his parents will get hit by a car; he takes responsibility — blaming himself (and me) for not watching more closely. My child experienced trauma: an event that overwhelmed his ability to cope and in many ways, continues to impact him, because that’s what formative events do. I regret that it happened. And I am grateful that he has so many protective factors in place: supportive family and friends, access to professional services, plentiful food, a safe place to sleep.
When Bernard was hit, Moses’ still-developing brain went into fight-or-flight mode. His amygdala (the smoke detector) went off, and much of the higher-level thinking capabilities he has developed went offline. All of our brains do that occasionally. Adults too, lose our ability to fully access our prefrontal cortex when we experience a trauma or a retraumatizing stimulus.
Many of us, though, like my son, have protective factors in place to help us regulate our response — to remember that we are safe and in control.
There are 16 people now living at Safe Camp. Last week at our camp steering committee meeting, someone asked me what I had learned in the last two months. One thing I’ve learned is that trauma is a common denominator.
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An individual who is homeless by choice or chance experiences trauma every single day. Because of the failure of our systems, they live in illegal situations most often uncertain of where they will be sleeping the next day or if they will be forced to move in the middle of the night. They have constant anxiety over the safety of their person and property. They have mental and physical health issues that are a result of or exacerbated by their lack of shelter. Not to mention whatever trauma has led them to their living situation.
As my 5-year-old struggles — under the best of circumstances — to regain his sense of safety in the world, I wonder how those who are always in fight-or-flight mode can accomplish anything. How can they remember what day of the week it is, much less navigate the complex world of social services? So it amazes me that five of our original campers have already moved on to more permanent housing. It is a testament to the capacity of the human spirit and it shows that a safe, consistent place to sleep and be located is a necessary step toward harm reduction.
That they manage to stay alive in a world that excludes them from human community and refuses to make space for their creative resilience stuns me. It is the very least our congregation can do — in a state where our homeless population is more than double the national average — to provide a safe place for humans to sleep.
There is an old Irish saying: it is in the shelter of the other that we live. It is our job, a fundamental part of the human project, religion aside, to shelter the other. If we fail in this, we fail at being human.