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26 April 2010

The Homeless Heart

So, what do we know about the causes of chronic homelessness-- the factors which can predict that a person is trapped on the street?
  • We have persons running from warrants—e.g., failed probation drug tests after a DUI—they have no ID, and to get one means jail time, jail time means stigma which impacts career choices for life, and no ID means no job—often, it means no help will be given by a charity.
  • We have persons with jobs, buried under garnished wages for child support, back taxes or both. The courts know, but the paper says it is “in the best interest of the children” and so it must be true—society calls them “Deadbeat Dads.” Law abiding, full-time employed, but living in the woods, in their cars, or on the street, they are therefore unable to accept their children on their weekends and deemed "criminals--" facing jail time for missed payments. They grieve unseen, alone, and broken.
  • We have persons with addictions which both absorb income as well as prevent it.
  • We have persons with criminal records which forever flag them as “unemployable.”
  • We have mentally ill persons—bi-polar being particularly tragic because few will chose to take medication (if they can get it) unless monitored by persons who know them and care.
  • We have runaways who had good reason to believe that someone would value them when gone—but no one did.
  • We have castaways who learned that they never were valued.
  • We have a police force which equates an impoverished person with a criminal, to whom sleeping in public is none-the-less, a sign of drunkenness rather than homelessness, and so will insure a criminal record will be created with unsubstantiated PI charges.
  • Count the homeless you see before and then during "Parents Weekend" at UT, or before and during a Congressional Session here in Austin.  If you do not have questions after doing this, you soul has probably given up on you.  I am pretty certain the homeless are not on vacation.
  • We have persons who collect napkins from fast food places to use as toilet paper in the woods and urinate in alleys. These persons know how far away from home they are.
  • We have persons who stay at bars until closing only because that is the last bathroom they will have access to.
  • No phones, no baths, no sink, no closet, no file cabinet, no address, no car—how does a potential employer contact a person? How does a person prepare for an interview?
  • We have a culture of “givers” who save whales and trees, but not persons.
  • We have families, neighbors, employers, and friends who watched a person fall and did not know what to do about it, and the inaction was understandably viewed by the homeless person as not being valued.
  • We have naive society believing (and even taught) that poverty is punishment from God, and so the person deserves it.
  • We have first and last months rent, utility deposits, connection fees, and “residence history” forms—all impossibilities. Did you know you cannot get a PO Box without a physical address?
  • We have persons with broken hearts, broken dreams, extreme grief and an unspeakable loneliness.
  • We have people who see the agony of the homeless person but who then hear a wicked voice inside say, "There must be more to the story than I am hearing" and so decide that the homeless person "deserves it."
  • Having no home, also means having no close relations—the homeless person has a secret which cannot be hidden from close relations for long—a secret , if discovered, which will stigmatize as “troubled” and therefore the homeless person is forever to be avoided. Friendships and romance are no longer to be hoped for. Loneliness must be embraced and so the heart dies.
  • We have smelling like creek water, dryer sheets, or human sweat—and shower times at the shelter is limited to normal working hours. Soup kitchens, too, operate during normal working hours. Work or bath; work or eat-- but not both.
  • We have clerks yelling, “No back-packs in here!”
  • We have signs which read, “Restrooms for customers only.”
  • We have rain, which means showing up for work wet.
  • We have heat and cold, which means showing up for work exhausted.
  • We have thieves, which means showing up for work with a “rig.”
  • We have persons who believe that a minimum wage job is enough to afford a home simply because they never cared enough to do the math, so rather than charity, offer only, “Get a job!”
  • We have a society which believes that there are government agencies to take care of these people—and therefore, that the persons simply choose not to better themselves.
  • We have persons who drink, snort, smoke, and shoot-up because they must escape what cannot be escaped. You want the person sober? Why? To what end? The homeless persons will still wake up with frost on their hair, and hearts which beat but have no purpose and which no one values.
  • We have persons who are angry because the world around them is complacent with their state, and if they show that anger, the world around them believes it is, therefore, justified in its complacency.
In summary, we have persons who have learned they really do not matter, are of no value, and depressed because even those with compassion for them cannot find a reasonable way for them to climb out. For the most part, these are people who were, in the eyes of those who should have known better, not worth the effort to save; and who are now unable to be saved by those who looked and saw their value.

I look on the homeless with despair because they do matter, but I will always be a mere surrogate of that truth—the only persons whose demonstration of that truth which mattered, did not believe it themselves.

Stopping homelessness requires never allowing a person to have no value in the eyes of any. Once a person learns they can live on the street, in a car, or in the woods with no one (family, friends, neighbors and former co-workers) looking for them, their trauma is lifelong. Compassionate strangers cannot fill that vacuum because the human heart knows the difference.

A ray of hope:

One Sunday morning, the clergywoman at the Church I was attending at the time, began a political activism agenda lecture under the guise of being a "sermon;" so, not being a stranger to this, I stood up and walked out the door and walked down the block to have breakfast at a fast food restaurant on the Drag.

I noted about a dozen homeless "Drag Rats" sitting in a circle behind the restaurant as I entered.  Inside, there were only two or three other customers.  About half-way through my meal, I looked up from the book I had brought just in case the sermon would again, as it did, fail to feed me spiritually.  I noticed several bags laid out on the counter and the workers stuffing burgers, fries and even drinks in them, assembly line fashion.

The care in which each bag was folded and creased at the top was unusual.  They never bothered to close, much less carefully crease my order in a bag.  Instead of the bags being handed out the drive-through window, I saw all them being carried out the door by employees, taken across the street and set, with great care, down inside of a dumpster.  The employees returned, saying nothing.

I watched the dumpster

After a minute or two, a homeless man came from an alley, looked around nervously, and then opened the lid to the dumpster before climbing in. Every few seconds, his hand would appear out one of the lids and set a bag on top of the other lid to the dumpster.  After all of the bags were lined up, he climbed out, gathered as many bags as he could carry and darted across the street with them to the circle of waiting companions sitting in the circle.  One of those sprinted across the street and retrieved the others, bringing them back to the group.

 As they began to eat-- more food than I suspect they could consume at one sitting-- they smiled and chatted happily.  The employees who had done this never even looked out the window, but they glanced at me as I did so.

Two or three minutes after they had began opening the bags and choosing their favorites, a police car pulled up next to the dumpster.  A policeman got out, opened the lid and shined a flash-light inside.  I knew that no one was in there-- and the policeman closed the lid when he realized this.

I finished my own meal and ordered a cup of coffee to go.  When they served me, I tanked them, and the girl taking my order nodded.  I said, "No.  All of you-- Thank you."  One man grinned sheepishly.  The others looked more guilty than proud.  They were breaking the law, and would lose their jobs if caught-- the restaurant would be shut-down.  They took a big risk.

My soul was fed.
It does nothing to heal or to reconcile the homeless, but it matters:  Feed someone, clothe someone, visit with someone who is homeless, buy someone a cup of coffee and talk about anything, stop and smoke a cigarette and give as many away as you can so all can stand and talk together out on the street-- you get the idea, be a human being.

Who knows, but maybe someone else will start to believe that the homeless are human beings because they see you acting like you believe it?


Alan Graham said...

This is an excellent post! Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts. We have several blog posts that deal with the big issue of loss of family. Check those out.

cregil said...

Alan Graham, above, is the founder of Mobile Loaves & Fishes in Austin, a mobile food service for the homeless:

Today, MLF kicked off a homeless awareness project, and here is the key request I have...

The primary call to action is to text “MLF” to 20222 (to donate $10) and to visit The site provides more information about MLF, Danny and Maggie’s story and how the “I Am Here” project came together.