Shelter or Survival?
The question ought not be, "Why aren't some people sheltering in place?” The question should to be, "Why do so many people lack safe places in which to shelter?"
Guest Column by Rev. Dr. Reginald W. Williams, Jr.
Not since the Spanish Flu of 1918 has there been a pandemic pervade the planet as we have witnessed with COVID-19! Phrases added to our lexicon such as "Shelter in Place," "social distancing," and "flattening the curve," are now common. Additionally, orders to remain at home have been extended through the end of May in Illinois. Here in University Park, village officials mandated face coverings even before Gov. Pritzker issued the state-wide order. We are indeed living in a new world, or are we? There is no doubt that this pandemic has pushed us to engage in a new normal. However, there are some old cultural habits that die hard. What remains culturally consistent for this country is in times of crisis, the poor and dispossessed bear the brunt of burdens, and even the blame for behaviors brought on by conditions to which they are subjected.
As people continue to shelter in place, and remain socially distant, I wonder if we take the time to think about those for whom sheltering in place is a hazard, or unhealthy. For some, sheltering in place exacerbates their exposure to more frequent abuse, a lack of food, or other occurrences which hinder their chances for mere survival. For some sheltering in place means that even with a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, no funds are coming into the domicile. Still for others, sheltering in place means that tensions in the household skyrocket to a boiling point, the results of which are damaging to say the least, and fatal at its worst. If that’s not enough, COVID-19, for many has only further complicated concerns, which existed prior to this pandemic, for health, wholeness, and even healing.
Before we deliberate the decisions of those who are not sheltering in place, care must be taken to consider their dilemma. Consider not only their personal dilemmas, but consider the public and socio-cultural dilemmas that many poor people must navigate just to survive. For centuries, Black and Brown communities have suffered due to systemic injustice, communal disinvestment, inadequate access to health care and resources. Black and Brown people are being adversely impacted at higher levels due to the legacy of institutionalized racism, and the systems of supremacy which preserve the privilege of some, while plundering the masses of those living in poverty. Just as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005, COVID-19 is pulling back the covers of injustice and inequity inherent in this country.
When these factors are considered, the question ought not be, "Why aren't some people sheltering in place?” The question should to be, "Why do so many people lack safe places in which to shelter?"
I am not advocating for avoiding the "sheltering in place" orders. For those who have the luxury to shelter in place, I absolutely encourage it in and around University Park, on the campus of our community partner Governors State University, and beyond. The sacrifice of sheltering in place has proven to "flatten the curve," and will go a long way in saving lives. This also does not excuse those who refuse to shelter in place, despite warnings of the positive effects sheltering in place yields. However, before we judge those who do not shelter in place, we would do well to consider their story. In the words of Dr. Frederick Haynes, III, "Don't judge my choices if you don't know my options."
It is my prayer that during this time, we who have the privilege of "sheltering in place," will discover new ways to reset ourselves, and ensure that all have equitable access to the systems on which we depend. May we emerge from this experience with a commitment to ensuring that all have a place, and community wherein they can take shelter!
Rev. Dr. Reginald W. Williams, Jr. is pastor of First Baptist Church Of University Park in University Park, IL.