Why are you sleeping on our doorstep?

Florida Housing Coalition President Jaimie Ross recently published an article in The Miami Herald where she cited shocking evidence from Enterprise Community Partners.

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Image from The Miami Herald

According to Ross, “36 percent of renters” in South Florida “spend more than half their income on rent” (Miami Herald). In my work with PACT (People Acting for Community Together), I have found that there are families paying up to 70 percent of their income just on rent. That is tragic.

When families pay 50-70 percent of their income just on housing, what do they have left for medical expenses, childcare, car payments, and groceries. Is it moral that we live in a world where “hundreds of senior [citizens have to sleep] in their cars just to get on a waiting list for a chance to apply for an affordable place to live” (Miami Herald). How can we expect our students to succeed when thousands are left homeless in South Florida. It is unacceptable and immoral that anyone is homeless, especially because we live in a country of abundance.

Back in September of this year, Pope Francis visited the United States of North America. It was a miraculous trip! He was actually able to unite Republicans and Democrats, though momentarily. To say the least, Pope Francis had everyone drinking right out of his water cup–that statement is more literal for some.

Pope Francis left a lasting impact for many reasons, but his treatment of the homeless was most striking. According to Religious News, the Pope dined with America’s forgotten, and he called for serious policy change, because:

“We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing… we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”

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Image from Religious News

There is no moral justification for homelessness, and I’d like to add that there is no justifiable reason why anyone should be paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, which is the percentage the Federal Government recommends.

This last Saturday, the weekend of Art Basel, when Miami-Dade was buzzing with people and capitalism, I spent 20 minutes discussing homelessness with Benjamin Bethea.

Benjamin Bethea waving from his home, my office doorstep.

I heard about the 57-year old before I ever met him. [There’s a homeless man who sometimes sleeps in our yard if we leave the gate open], I was told when I started my job in January. In my early months, I never saw a homeless man in our yard, but around March I started to notice a man on the front steps of the office downstairs. We share our office with DART (Direct Action and Research Training), the network that PACT is a member of. He never bothered me, and I felt no reason to fear him. In truth, on nights when I left the office passed 9:00PM, I was thankful for Benjamin–I felt safer knowing he was there.

It was not until May that I began to have small talk with Benjamin, often asking if he needs anything, and getting a polite no. When we first spoke, I noticed that his voice is strained. Questions about his health, how he became homeless, where his family is, and whether or not he is mentally stable continued to present themselves.

How did Benjamin end up homeless 

“Some troubles, some things—I got involved with some people and some things happened. I was doing very good. I always kept a job, but I got tied up in some things and I lost a job. I use to work for Miami-Dade water department.”

Some troubles, some things. Was he addicted to drugs? Did he go to Jail? Benjamin worked for Miami-Dade for two years, had good benefits–what sort of troubles messed that up?

What sort of troubles  

Benjamin spent the first 18 years of his life living with his mother in Brownsville, an area somewhere between Liberty City and Hialeah, both located in Miami-Dade, Florida. Upon becoming an adult, he found his own apartment where he lived with a girlfriend, but troubles soon came.

“Doing stuff, drugs—you know. Not only that, but I was dealing and it messed up my job.” 

Around 21, Benjamin started smoking and dealing Marijuana. He dealt drugs for 10 years before everything came crashing down. A decade is quite the career for a drug dealer, but Benjamin managed because he knew a lot of people and had connections with people who trusted him.

“I went to Camp Belle Glade in Palm Beach. They close it down now. They use to shoot movies and everything in the prison, but it’s over now. Thank God I learned my lesson. 

Thank God I learned my lesson 

Throughout our conversation, Benjamin thanked God for the life he now has. He will turn 58 on December 27th and shows no signs of illness. Earlier, I mentioned that Benjamin has a strained voice. A few years back, he had surgery to remove a tumor that formed because of the many years he spent smoking cigarettes.

I want to go back to something Benjamin said about prison, “thank God I learned my lesson.” Prison is meant to be a corrective experience. Benjamin even talked about receiving a “life skill” class before he returned to society after his two-year sentence. However, upon release he found it difficult to re-adjust.

“When you got a record, it knocks your ability–the opportunity for a job.”

Let me remind you, Benjamin went to prison for selling Marijuana, an experience many black men have had because of unfair policy. He luckily only served two years, but he grew up in a time when black men men got 10, 20, or even 25 years for charges affiliated with Marijuana. Nonetheless, he was in the wrong, he did something illegal and served his time. He came out of Belle Glade a changed man.

Despite having paid his debt to society, Benjamin hasn’t lived in stable housing for 30 years. Our doorstep has been the place he calls home for many years now. He spoke with excitement when he described having known the neighborhood.

“Another guy–we use to hang out, before they open the paint store there that was a lawyer office. I knew the lawyer office before they remodeled it. They use to have a porch. Before they made it a paint store, it was a lawyer’s office—I use to clean up. I been in this area for over 20 something years. Everybody know me, I’m cool with everybody. 

What is next for Benjamin 

I worry about what is next for Benjamin. I worry because the PACT and DART offices are moving. Our neighborhood is on Biscayne, an area of the county that is going up in value as Miami-Dade continues to face gentrification. PACT is a small non-for-profit and as South Florida continues to mark the charts as one of the most unaffordable areas in the states, my organization can no longer afford to operate in such a hot-shot location. So, I worry about what will happen to Benjamin if our building is knocked down and replaced with a multi-million dollar condo. He assured me that he will be fine, he always is, and God is on his side.

Benjamin just got a new job and estimates that he will be able to afford a residence for $400.00 per month.

“Like the people that do landscaping and garden fancy houses. They got all types of pearl stones. My job is—it’s 40 pounds—the people order by the pound—but it’s a 40 pound bag. I make the 40-pound bag and I seal it, I seal it with the machine.”

Final words from Benjamin

Our interview was cut a couple minutes short as Benjamin began to experience a coughing fit, something I imagine happened from straining his voice talking. However, before we ended, I asked him what he would say to his younger self and whether or not he is happy.

If Benjamin were a time traveler, he would tell his younger self to:

“Be a real man, stay strong, and use your head. A real man is standing up to your responsibility. Being strong is to carry on–to keep going–don’t let what is no good for you come next to you.”

I wondered if I would come off rude asking a homeless man if he were happy, but I asked anyway:

“No, but I am happy I am still alive, you know and I can breathe. Some people didn’t make it. Some people—I am sick—but I say thank God it’s not a pain. Some people are sick and they are suffering from pain. I praise him for all that.

Benjamin is not happy, but he is grateful. In his solemn thankfulness, he left me with some words that are all too ironic for a man who has already served his time for sins committed in his youth, wrongs he has served over three decades paying the consequences for.

“It’s the end. My day has come. The judgement. Justice is coming to serve me.” 

Justice is coming… I can only pray that righteousness looks like Pope Francis’ treatment of the homeless.