Filmmaker believes that 'shalom' is crucial
Announcing his new book, A Place to Exist: The True and Untold Story of Camp Hope and Homelessness in Spokane, Maurice Smith, executive director of Rising River Media and producer of "My Road Leads Home," a documentary film series on homelessness, observed that "some of our homeless friends simply want to know that someone cared enough to allow them to tell their story."
They want to know that they, their struggles and their lives matter, given how people experiencing homelessness are often vilified and blamed for the city's problems of drugs and crime.
From August 2022 to June 2023, Maurice was day manager of Camp Hope, the largest homeless camp in the state. In his 18 years working with people experiencing homelessness, he started creating documentary films on unsheltered homelessness to tell the story "from the perspective of those experiencing it and those who serve them to move them forward to something better."
Maurice said the opening chapter of his book is on shalom—what it is and why it is so important in "building the peace and well-being of both the homeless and the larger community."
One winter evening, he was filming a team from City Church. They saw a man wearing only pants, "dancing in the snow in a drug-induced reality." They approached to see if they could help. Assessing his needs, someone shouted, "He needs shoes. Does anyone have size 10-and-a-half shoes?"
Maurice heard the Holy Spirit whisper, "You do." He took off his shoes and handed them to the team.
"They helped him put on some clean dry socks and the shoes. I had more shoes at home. He didn't. I was in no danger of frostbite and losing toes. He was," Maurice writes.
For the filmmaker, serving the least of these and building the shalom of the homeless meant putting down his camera, taking off his shoes and helping someone survive the night.
To address homelessness, Maurice suggests identifying the destination. His book's thesis is that "addressing homelessness is not simply about housing, but about shalom.
"When we drive through downtown and see someone sleeping on a sidewalk, in the doorway of a business (or dancing almost naked in the snow), we may think or say to ourselves, 'That's not right. That's NOT the way things ought to be!'"
That's broken shalom, Maurice said.
"When we see a news story about someone or a group in our community helping an individual or family get on their feet through acts of generosity and kindness, helping them with housing, rent, food or medical expenses, or paying the cafeteria lunch bill for an entire school in a poor neighborhood, we say to ourselves, 'That's the right thing to do. THAT's the way things ought to be!'"
That's shalom, Maurice said.
"True shalom—acts of generosity, kindness, justice or restoration—motivates us to say, 'I want to be part of something like that!' It motivates us to get involved, to help someone in need to better their situation, to bring cosmos (order) out of the chaos of life, and to make a difference in the lives of those around us," he writes. "In the process, the pursuit of genuine shalom changes us, and changes the way we see people."
Maurice said shalom, as "an old, rich Hebrew word," encompasses five ideas: 1) peace, 2) well-being or welfare, 3) prosperity or good fortune, 4) physical health and healing, and 5) restoration. He said that shalom restores 'an overall sense of wholeness in mind, body and possessions."
Poverty and homelessness are manifestations of the absence of shalom.
He quoted Marchauna Rodgers, an international development specialist, who says poverty is mis-defined "as the absence of material resources."
Most think it's not having money or stuff, just as many think that homelessness is not having a home. Those are symptoms of deeper issues, calling for looking at the root causes.
"A more robust definition of poverty is the absence of shalom, characterized by broken and unjust relationships," said Maurice, emphasizing that "shalom is a result of just relationships."
He calls for combining these perspectives to "see how the restorative nature of shalom-building speaks to the needs of those mired in personal brokenness, poverty and homelessness.
"Shalom-building in the homeless community is about restoring in people a sense of wholeness in mind, body and possessions," he explained.
"Do they need appropriate housing and a home? Of course, but that's the beginning, not the end of our work to build shalom," he writes. "This process of restoration will look different for each individual."
Joe Ader, executive director at Family Promise of Spokane, says "two common denominators of homelessness are deep personal trauma and loss of community."
So, Maurice said, any restorative process must address these issues. The process may "begin in a low-barrier shelter that meets immediate needs of food, sanitation, hygiene and a safe bed," as first steps toward stability.
"Some will be ready for a transitional living arrangement as a step toward more permanent housing. Others will need treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues. Others may be ready for life-skills recovery or job-training programs," he said.
Addressing diverse personal issues and needs are part of shalom-building.
To do otherwise is to court failure for them and for the community, he said.
One day over coffee at The Gathering House, Mark Terrell, founder and director emeritus of A Cup of Cool Water ministry to youth on the streets, told Maurice, "How we see people is the beginning of how we treat people."
That self-evident statement was like "a personal earthquake with aftershocks that have rolled on during the intervening years, even today," said Maurice, observing that homeless people need the same things—tangible and intangible—that everyone needs.
Believing that seeing people differently "begins by sharing their journey, walking beside them and getting to know them," he began filming documentaries.
"During Camp Hope's existence, our community was exposed to a perspective that sees people experiencing homelessness as less than ourselves, less than human; nuisances, drug addicts, criminals, even garbage," Maurice said.
"If that's how the community sees and talks about them, that's how we will treat them—as garbage to be disposed of," he said. "The homeless, particularly the unsheltered homeless, have become the expendables."
He noted that history teaches about tragedies from "treating people as less than human, less than ourselves and less than how we would want to be treated if our situations were reversed."
For a year, he oversaw organizing and cleaning Camp Hope. As chief garbage collector and overseer of water tanks and porta potties, he saw many needles and burnt foils—signs of drug use. He asked, "Do we see a drug addict as someone who deserves to be treated as a nuisance, a criminal or as garbage to be swept out?"
Over time he learned to see needles and foils as representing people trapped in a cycle of substance abuse that's out of their control, which is why it's called an addiction.
"I see a person, created in God's image, in desperate need of redemption, treatment and restoration, but trapped in a chemical bondage from which they can't break free without help," he said.
To build shalom among this challenging population begins "when we see people differently, when we see the homeless and marginalized as human beings struggling through a difficult phase of their life," he said.
To be a shalom-builder, means changing "what we see" and then "getting involved to make a difference," because "someone's life and future depends on it," he concluded.
In 20 chapters, Maurice recounts how a peaceful protest in front of city hall grew into Camp Hope, examining the extent of homelessness in Spokane and the shortage of shelter beds. Six chapters share insights of local leaders. The final chapter shares lessons and an appendix frames a new model.
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