Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What I Feel About the Homeless

One of my daughter's teachers asked all the parents in her class to write a three paragraph essay on the topic of "What I Feel About The Homeless". This is my essay. Of course, I couldn't keep it to only three paragraphs.

A number of years ago, I was having lunch with an acquaintance from my church and he said to me, “I don’t know how you work with those people—the homeless. I understand drunks and drug addicts, but I can’t get my mind around people who end up sleeping outside. They just don’t make sense to me.” From my perspective, this is mysterious. The homeless are people. They have the same kinds of desires and hopes and needs that everyone else has. What is to understand?

But perhaps this is my 16 years of spending every day with the homeless. I do have a particular perspective.

First of all, people who are homeless have a huge amount of variety. Almost all people who are homeless come out of the lowest income brackets, but most don’t spend more than a few weeks or months on the street. Soon, their families and friends get them help and they are back on their feet again. They are families, singles, women, men, children and youth, most of whom live in cars and are culturally part of the mainstream society.

My friends, however, are the folks who have been on the street for two years or more. They are the chronically homeless, the “bums”, the bottom of society, those whom even our generous government refuse to help. These are folks who have been on the street long enough to have formed their own culture, and so they truly ARE different. They have different attitudes and different ethics. For instance, most of them would give up their last resource to help another person in need. They take no concern about the future, but live completely in the present. When you live on the street, this kind of attitude is a necessity, and it becomes a lifestyle. But it makes it difficult to re-enter a “normal” life of paying rent and bills.

But my friends understand living in community better than most other people I know. They are deeply involved in each other’s problems and joys and survival. If one is too weak to make it to the hospital, rather than call an ambulance, another will put the sick one on a makeshift cart and take them miles by foot. If one of the community is missing, they will spend an hour on the phone to find out if he or she is in jail. The love they show is a practical, everyday kind of care that our society of “busy” people can’t match.

And in the end, I am not one of them. I am one of those “busy” people. Yes, I am busy with a lot of good things, but I’m not there every day, helping and loving and caring. I spend one or two days a week with each of my communities. But in a sense, I wish all of our society could learn something from the homeless. I wish we could all be truly present with those we are in the presence of. I wish that our daily commitments weren’t just made over the internet, with people who are miles away.

What else do I feel about the homeless? I feel that the homeless are people and that they deserve to have the rights that any human being has. They deserve to make a living, if they can. They deserve to have a place to sit, stand, lie, sleep and go to the bathroom and until we give them a place to do that, we shouldn’t tell them where not to. They deserve places to rest and to worship and to have community, just like everyone else does. They deserve to go through a night of sleep without worrying that they will be woken up by the police or well meaning social workers. And they deserve to not be insulted publically—being called “lazy” (or worse) or being told to “get a job”—by those who don’t understand their story or their efforts.

I also feel that every judge, police officer, governor, bishop, pastor and lawmaker should spend at least a month on the street, in a jail or in a mental institution. No one should attempt to make decisions for all the people until they understand what all the people live like. Until they understand what their decisions do to people, they shouldn’t be making those decisions.

Life is hard enough. No one should make life harder for another person unless it is out of love.

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