Hell and Homelessness

This blogpost is basically a feelings dump.

My work brings me into contact with a fair number of homeless people. As with any journalism, it’s tough to strike the right emotional balance between professional distance and empathy when an elderly woman on the side of 4th Ave. weeps as she tells me she has nowhere to go since leaving her abusive husband, or a young man explains that he’s panhandling money for insulin and a night at a hostel.

Hell is a useful concept for thinking about homelessness, in two ways. First, it’s an apt metaphor for the lived experience of many homeless. Forget about food and shelter for a second and just consider what it must be like to have to beg for money from hundreds of passerby who won’t even look you in the eye. To know that everyone around you is repulsed by your smell, because you don’t have access to a shower. To have to hide behind bushes from the police and passerby when you shit, because there’s no bathroom available. Human beings are social creatures. Everything in my own lived experience leads me to conclude that being a pariah is much harder than being hungry.

The other way hell is useful is for thinking about the moral implications of homelessness for housed people. Put bluntly: if there is a literal hell, like the one in the Bible, then pretty much all of us housed people deserve to burn in it, if only for our complacency in the face of such human suffering. When bad things are happening, good people help as much as they can. Very bad things are happening, such as the daily suffering of Seattle’s homeless. Few people, if any, are helping to solve that problem as much as they can. So, in my view, we’re all guilty.

But so what? As far as I can tell, there is no god, no universal tendency toward justice, nothing like that. We’re animals on a rock on space. So I guess what I’m really pointing at is hypocrisy: that we housed humans of Seattle generally like to think of ourselves as obeying certain basic moral rules, yet we ignore the profound suffering that’s all around us. That’s a trivial, banal observation when I write it down, but in the moment, when I’m facing the homeless person who’s living through hell, it hits me like a punch to the gut.

There is no hell, but if there were, most of us would deserve it.



  1. dreamsinsunshine · · Reply

    No consolation here. If we live long enough, climate change will make us all homeless. I don’t know if that is some arc in the universe to be aware of, or just a thing as one among many of the like-it-or-not’s coming toward us. Today I read a short statement by a man who was hurting in his soul, all in solitude. I don’t know why. He didn’t say. He is finally a man with a degree hard fought for, and he has the approbation of many since he obviously did it from a position of a child once in painful poverty. But his inner life still hurts and gets carried along wrapped in a silence. He is burdened, and like the Ancient Mariner, needs for it to be heard. Only a career like yours and a few others really get into stories, the warp and woof of a life. I wish we had more time for each other, more time for listening, more ability to listen, more habit of appreciation of story, more intra-mentoring, the kind of mentoring that promises some wholeness to our community life. Keep us learning.

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