As a freshman in high school, I went to the State Capitol in Colorado with my friends and fellow board members of Helping the Homeless Colorado in order to testify for the “Right to Rest Bill.”
This piece of state legislation focuses on granting individuals experiencing homelessness the right to rest in public spaces without disturbance from law enforcement officers.
Though I may be biased because of my work with individuals in the homeless community, I thought the answer was very simple. People experiencing homelessness are still people, which means they should not be treated as anything less than that. For whatever reason one may be on the streets, out of respect for them, as a society we should allow them to rest in peace. Unless our society can offer them an alternative to sleeping in public spaces, we should not force them to “move along.”
Like my friends, I walked to the podium to give my testimony in favor of this policy. After I had finished, I looked up and saw a committee of politicians more interested in their phones than the people testifying in front of them.
Later that night, I found myself incredibly upset and frustrated with my local politicians. The idea that none of them actually seemed to care about what I had to say, or the hundreds of other peoples’ testimonies, really bothered me.
So I went back to the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, which counsel the Baha’is to:
… avoid the entanglements and bickerings inseparable from the pursuits of the politician, and … become worthy agencies of that Divine Polity which incarnates God’s immutable Purpose for all men. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 65.
After some time for reflection, I found I could detach my feelings from that event, and see it as something I didn’t need to dwell on. As a Baha’i, I don’t put my hopes for changing the world in partisan politics. Rather, I think that the collective spiritual will of the people actually changes the world.
In order for the world to change, we cannot depend on the efforts of the few and the powerful. Baha’is believe that the world will change when the masses of people agree on a common goal of making society more inclusive and unified. This means we need to build an inclusive society from the ground up—one where your age, gender, race, or socioeconomic background does not impede your ability to belong to that society.
I don’t think it’s wrong to say that sometimes people experiencing homelessness are responsible for their situation. But, what does that say about us as a society? We are all human, which means we all make mistakes. I don’t believe that provides a reason for us to remove the poor from society, or fail to help them.
As a society, the Baha’i teachings say, we should expend our efforts in caring for one another, being kind, and looking for new ways to build a strong community that ultimately eliminates the extremes of wealth and poverty:
What could be better before God than thinking of the poor? For the poor are beloved by our heavenly Father. When Christ came upon the earth, those who believed in Him and followed Him were the poor and lowly, showing that the poor were near to God. … the poor are especially beloved of God. Their lives are full of difficulties, their trials continual, their hopes are in God alone. Therefore, you must assist the poor as much as possible, even by sacrifice of yourself. No deed of man is greater before God than helping the poor. …
Each one of you must have great consideration for the poor and render them assistance. Organize in an effort to help them and prevent increase of poverty. The greatest means for prevention is that whereby the laws of the community will be so framed and enacted that it will not be possible for a few to be millionaires and many destitute. One of Baha’u’llah’s teachings is the adjustment of means of livelihood in human society. Under this adjustment there can be no extremes in human conditions as regards wealth and sustenance. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 216.
Homelessness and poverty still remain as one of the world’s biggest challenges, and one of its most politicized issues—but through positive, unified efforts we can move closer to finding solutions.
So the next time the news about poverty and homelessness makes you feel overwhelmed or upset, think about what you can do to make a difference. What contribution can you personally make to helping the poor and improving the world?