I know, I know. The homeless smell bad sometimes. They look scary, with layers of clothing and dirty hands. They litter our streets with cardboard boxes, fast-food wrappers and empty bottles. They sleep on sidewalks or in tents under bridges, testing sanitation limits.
It sounds pretty awful, I admit. This is the picture you and I see in our cities and towns. It makes us want to turn away and escape to our tidy houses.
It makes us angry, too. Most of us work or worked when we were younger. Most of us portion out our paychecks for housing, food, clothing and occasional recreation.
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Many of us have a savings account for the future or, at least, for emergencies. Many of us have health plans. Many of us have an education or a trade that enables us to earn a livable income.
Many of us have family and friends who love us and stand by us when we are troubled.
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But everyone isn’t us! And the facts are ugly.
Before 2003, I probably didn’t give much thought to the homeless, just buzzed by them at intersections where they held up their signs —“ Please help, veteran,” “I’m hungry, anything helps,” “Can you spare some change?”
Living in my bubble, I just didn’t get it. But then, I did.
In 2003, I went to live on the streets for 72 hours with a small group. We had no real plan or contacts. We traveled light — no money, no credit cards, and no cell phones. We carried backpacks with stuff we really didn’t need. Being a school principal, I didn’t consider it a field trip to learn about homelessness. It was a chance to find myself. And, I think, I did.
I couldn’t stay away and returned to live on the streets and be with them again and again. Since that time, I have learned a great deal about homeless people and why they are homeless.
What I experienced — people sleeping on cardboard in alleys, going through dumpsters for tossed out food, and searching for welcoming places to urinate or defecate — horrified me. This was not a world I knew or even imagined existed.
On the other hand, the people I met were amazingly kind and resilient. They drew me into their lives of desperation that they accepted without complaint.
Thus, I couldn’t stay away and returned to live on the streets and be with them again and again. Since that time, I have learned a great deal about homeless people and why they are homeless.
Who are these people?
They are like us in many ways. They are us! They are men, women, children, teens, seniors, families. They are all races, religions, nationalities. Some are shy, some are social. Some are serious, some are light-hearted. Some are givers and some are takers. Many are lonely. Most, like us, want to be loved.
Why are they homeless?
- Some were abandoned by their families
- Some are runaways who have been abused mentally, emotionally, physically and sexually
- Some are released from prison with no place to go; no family, no friends
- Some are victims of natural disasters
- Some have little education or job training
- Some are handicapped mentally, emotionally, physically
- Some are victims of war or trauma and suffer from PTSD
- Some are drug addicts
- Some lost their job and have no safety net for housing
- Some have part-time jobs but don’t earn enough to afford housing
- Some are on waiting lists for subsidized housing, which can take years
- Some are refugees
- Some have full-time jobs, but wages for low-paid workers have not kept pace with the surge of housing costs and there is a limited supply of housing options for the poor
- Some are alcoholics
- Some are victims of serious illnesses or accidents that can wipe out income and savings quickly
- Some who have been homeless for a time can’t shake the homeless lifestyle
- Some have aged out of foster care at 18 to 21 and have no place to go
- Some value their freedom on the streets or in the woods and prefer this life
Practical explanations. Homeless people wear layers of clothing because they have no closets. They are dirty and may smell because they have no bathrooms. They litter because they don’t have a place they care about and have lost the sense of responsibility that comes from living in a structured society. All of this can be changed.
Why should we even care about this? Why should we be willing in 2020 to alter our notions of homelessness?
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Because it makes sense economically. Because how we treat the least among us defines us as a society, as individuals. And because we, or someone we know or love, could become homeless due to addiction, an accident, an illness or loss of a job.
Enough said. Ponder away.