I, Thou, and Homelessness

Delphia Simmons, Editor

This Summer I was invited to give a Fall lecture about homelessness. I would be lecturing a group of about 30 active retirees somewhere in Oakland County. I sat with the invitation while gazing out the window from behind my desk with pen in hand.

Requests such as these come from a desire for people to know more and to do more.  I’ve come to know that even compassionate, well-intentioned people need, and sometimes want, to challenge what they think they know about people who are living without shelter or housing.  The words “homeless and homelessness” evoke images, snapshots that prompt thoughts and confirm held beliefs.  Although we all want to help, I can never take for granted that we are on the page or that our words have the same meaning.  

Then I spotted my copy of Martin Buber’s I and Thou in a stack of books on my desk. Perfect. 

In Buber’s book (published in 1923 and translated from German to English in 1937) he posits that the attitude of mankind–how we orient ourselves–is two-fold, and based on the primary word pairs:  I-Thou and I-It. What I’ve always understood Buber, an existential philosopher, to mean by his I-it and I-thou distinction is essentially the difference between othering versus being in harmony or relationship with.  

Full disclosure, I’ve read Buber’s work sporadically for over 25 years and I still don’t fully get him. But I get the feeling that, somehow, his work gets me, and that keeps me going back for the challenge. 

I recently learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted Buber’s I and Thou in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful.”

Together King and Buber help to explain my struggle with the labels homelessness and homeless. 

At the root of homelessness is poverty and the systems that hold it in place. Poverty is a form of segregation and othering. And although poverty is often the reality leading to homelessness, the use of the word homeless feels more “I-It” than “I-Thou” and without intention it limits the encounter to this thing of homelessness instead of creating an opportunity to see a possible connection with the human beings who are labeled .  Too often their humanity is buried beneath the weight of the words. Homeless – end of story; end of purpose.

Buber posits that our lives are summarized by our encounters–some more important than others but with each encounter we have a choice of how to “be” in relationship to the world and others.  And, whether we realize it or not, we build ourselves by the perpetual encounters of others. We are the results of our encounters, for better or worse. 

When we encounter another person, we have a choice to open ourselves to the whole of their humanity or the part. It’s comparable to the difference between standing in front of a living breathing human with all of our complexity, and standing in front of a photograph of a living breathing human with it’s one dimension. The difference is obvious and incomprehensible and yet, we can find ourselves relating to the photograph, the snapshot, the “I-It” and not the “I-Thou” of one’s full humanity.

I don’t have a new cut-to-the-chase word that feels better for me. Sadly, I think we’ll still be using homeless as a descriptor into the foreseeable future.

But what I offered the attendees in my workshop is something that I encounter daily: the realization that each encounter is an opportunity to offer a space of grace. 

I can only hope that the word homeless hits their ears in a way that prompts a shift in orientation and heart from I-It to I-Thou, perhaps even we.