Arupa Chiarini-Freeman
May/June 2006

Discrimination on the basis of economic status is the civil rights issue of our time.

There are two telelephone lines at the front desk at St. Francis House. One is answered, "St. Francis House," and the other "Hello." Why? Residents who are seeking employment need to conceal the fact that they are living at St. Francis House, since many employers will not give a job to a homeless person. Poor and homeless people also face housing discrimination. Many landlords will not rent to a person who is coming out of homelessness. Low and very-low income housing is routinely bulldozed down and replaced with middle- and upscale-housing, with the blessings of the City Commission.

Now we are seeing flagrant discrimination against Fire of God Ministries, a church whose congregation is made up mainly of poor and homeless people. Fire of God recently moved from their location in a warehouse on 23rd Avenue (behind Satchel's) to the old Moose Lodge, also on 23rd Avenue. The neighborhood behind the Moose Lodge has banded together with the intent of forcing Fire of God out of their new building or, at the least, severely curtailing their activities. Much could be said about this effort, but I am going to focus on the issue of serving meals.

There is an ordinance that states a church may operate a soup kitchen that serves a maximum of 20 people. Fire of God often serves a hundred people at their Saturday evening dinners. The neighborhood wants Fire of God to be held to the ordinance. Fire of God, however, is not operating a soup kitchen. They are serving food to their congregation,like every other church in town. The meals are cooked and served by members of thecongregation. This is not a case of an affluent church opening a soup kitchen to serve the poor.

St. Augustines and the Hillel Center­--and many other churches--serve frequent free or very-low cost meals to their student congregants. They are not held to the rule of serving only twenty. People want Fire of God out of the Carol Estates Neighborhood because the congregation is made up of poor and homeless people.

Discrimination against poor people rests on the demonization of the poor, who are held to be lazy, shiftless criminals whose presence will bring down property values and increase crime. Many people feel that they should not have to see poor people. Some residents of the Duckpond neighborhood have complained to the city commission that homeless people walk past their houses! They are not embarassed to do this!

This sort of discrimination creates a vicious downward spiral. The more you disciminate against people the worse their circumstances become. They become more raggedy, more dysfunctional and more hopeless. It becomes easier and easier to take potshots at their failures and say, "We don't want people like that in our neighborhood."

It has become basically impossible to site a facility that meets the needs of the poor in the city of Gainesville. The Plan East Gainesville folks have declared "No more service facilities anywhere in east Gainesville!" During many years of efforts to site a Safe Space, activists found out that there is no neighborhood and no business district in this town that will accept a facility that serves homeless people. We are not going to have anymore homeless shelters, soup kitchens or day services centers anywhere until the City Commission develops the political will to stand up to the pressure of neighborhood and business associations. (Those who want a facility 20 miles out in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, need to be told that there is a name for such a facility. It's called an internment camp. Our government is still paying reparation money to Japanese Americans who were forced into such camps during World War II.)

Discimination against the very poor--in employment, in housing, in health care, in social services--has become so profound and causes so much suffering, despair and death that it is fair to call it genocide against the poor. In 12 years of working as a voluneer in the homeless community I have known only a few who survived past the age of 60.

I read once, in a very wise book, that all human actions are based either in love or in fear. After examining my own life, I realized that this is true. Discrimination against the poor is clearly based in fear. Another wise book tells us, "Perfect love casteth out fear."

Love people, take care of people, treat people the way you want to be treated. That is the only way this nightmare is going to end.

Arupa Freeman is the coordinator of the Home Van, a project of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She may be contacted at barupa@atlantic.net.


St. Vincent de Paul, the Home Van's parent organization, has the mission of helping people remain in their homes and alleviating the more brutal aspects of poverty through small but strategic acts of assistance. They help with rent and GRU bills, provide food vouchers (Winn Dixie gift cards), and other sorts of help such as copayments on prescriptions and help with car repairs. They focus on families and elderly people.

The calls for assistance received by SVDP have skyrocketed in the last few months, due to escalating rents, gas prices and home-heating costs. SVDP needs money! We are kicking off a community-wide dollar drive to help SVDP with their mission. Our goal is to raise twenty thousand dollars by collecting one dollar from every person we can reach with this appeal: church congregations, classes, bowling teams, square dance clubs, office departments, scout troops...

We need your help in spreading the word and collecting dollars. Dollars raised should be mailed to the following address: St. Vincent de Paul / P.O. Box 1444 / Gainesville 32602.

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