I was looking at an abandoned home in Milwaukee a few days ago when the woman who lived next door to this boarded up mess of a house asked me who she could talk to about the fact that the empty home was infested with rodents. She said they had signed a one year contract with a pest control company, but the representative from the company told her that the abandoned home was the source of the problem and, unless someone treated that building as well, there would be no shortage of rodents making the trip to her yard and home. She told me she knew what they said was true, because she had seen the rodents herself. Since I am often compelled to ask questions to which I already know the answer, I asked what sort of rodents were in the abandoned shambles of a home next door to her’s. “Rats and raccoons,” was the answer she gave. As an aside, I ran across a raccoon myself just yesterday – you can see him toward the top of the picture above – and beat a hasty retreat after discovering I didn’t have my spray can of wasp killer to neutralize him should he attack.

I have learned several things the last six months working in the hood. One of the most tragic is the conditions in which poverty forces people to live. Most of us have an instinctive revulsion at the thought of rats, but if you have never experienced a city raccoon, you might think they are harmless and cute. As much as I hate to disabuse you of that belief, I am afraid I must. City raccoons are bold and aggressive, often living in sewers but more than happy to inhabit a building whenever possible. Since they eat garbage, they are vectors for disease – and they also get quite large, sometimes weighing in at over eighty pounds.

While some of you hillbillies may think there is nothing tastier than a freshly made batch of squirrel stew victuals washed down by your own home-made moonshine for dinner, city squirrels are another matter altogether. They, too, eat garbage in cities and are often disease vectors – and they like to find their way into homes when the weather gets cold, too. Once inside a vacant home, they may or may not be able to find their way back out and eventually run out of food. Whether disease or starvation gets them doesn’t really matter much – dead or alive, they are a health concern. When the temperatures start to rise and their corpses thaw, things get more than a little ugly.

The truth is that genteel people, like most of my readers, seldom get to see this side of life. The result is that when politicians start advocating budgets that cut services to the poor, that cut aid cities need to address public health concerns like pest control, that cut funding for clinics that are needed to treat children bitten by these rodents, a good percentage of the electorate doesn’t understand what the actual consequences of those cuts will be. The picture at the left is a child’s hand that has been bitten by a rat. Certainly, none of us would ever want to see our child with this kind of injury. What amazes me is that anyone could be so callous, so indifferent to human pain and suffering, that they would even consider doing less than everything possible to ensure that no child has to suffer these kinds of wounds.

Admittedly, some of the pictures in this post are hard to look at – but I believe that it is only because we are unaware of the public health consequences caused by budget cuts that many of us stand by idly and allow people to live at risk of grave health consequences that could be prevented if our priorities were in order. Getting back to the woman I spoke with who lived next to the rodent infested abandoned home, when I met her she was vigorously sweeping her porch. She told me that she keeps her home meticulously clean both inside and out, doing everything she can to keep the rats and raccoons away from her home – but when you live next door to the building pictured above, you are clearly fighting an uphill battle. Some would say she should move away, but without the financial ability to move away from the hood she could very well end up with the same situation in a different location.

A large part of the problem is the banks. The banks created a mortgage crisis through what were at best irresponsible practices and most often what were criminal practices. The banks now own thousands of homes in my city, and it seems that no matter how poor the condition of the home the banks believe they can fix them and rent them. The city does the best it can to identify the worst homes and order them razed and removed by the banks, but with limited resources due to budget cuts the city can’t possibly keep up with the demand. Once again, to the banks profits are more important than people’s lives. I have walked in homes where the floor literally sagged as I walked across it, and the bank would throw down some plywood and rent it. Lead paint, mold infestation, asbestos – none of it seems to matter if there is a chance to turn a profit. It is quite simply unacceptable.

As a spiritual teacher and a Christian priest and bishop, I cannot emphasize enough that when religious institutions spend all their time worrying about what people are doing with their genitals and no time addressing pressing social issues such as these there is no doubt as to why the institutional Church is imploding – it is nothing short of evil. It seems there are unlimited numbers of people who want to scream and shout about abortion but who are perfectly happy to have children live in conditions like the ones I have described in the post. That is an immoral, indefensible position. The Roman Catholic Church prattles on about birth control, but is silent about the conditions in which people in urban areas are forced to live – despite the fact that the history of that very Church is filled with the best examples of people of faith working for social justice. I suppose that the Catholic bishops would rather fantasize about the sex lives of the public at large than take action that would improve that same public’s quality of life. You might say that to most religious types, the pubic outweighs the public every time. That is a perversion the scope of which eclipses anything two consenting adults could ever do.

Those of us who follow any spiritual path must recognize our duty to speak the truth to power. All spiritual paths emphasize compassion toward our fellow human beings. While it may make us uncomfortable at first, we must find ways to speak out about the deplorable conditions in which people in our cities are forced to live. We must reject the many fictional arguments that people live in unsafe conditions by choice, for who among us would voluntarily put their children at risk? We must learn that if addressing these basic issues of social justice means that standards of living must change, then they must change. The truth is that to the extent that we fail to address these issues and find solutions for them each of us are dehumanized. Selling our souls for a few extra dollars is never a fair exchange.

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