Thursday, October 29, 2015

Thoughts on the Homeless Population

Your biggest fear about the homeless is absolutely true.  I hate to be the one to tell you this, to cause more fear and pain for you.  But until we face this reality, there is nothing we can do to move through our fear or figure out a solution to the problem.  So I will tell you the truth that we are so afraid to name, but that is true, beyond a shadow of a doubt:

It is absolutely true that the homeless are no different from you or I.

There it is.  A terrifying reality, but a true one.

Like us, some homeless are educated and others aren’t.  Like us, some homeless struggle with addictions and some do not.  Like us, some homeless struggle with mental illness and some do not.  Like us, some have tempers and some do not.  Like us, some are violent and some are not.  Like us, some homeless work and some do not.  Some have children, some have elderly parents that they worry about.  Some have skills, some don’t.  Some have had hard childhoods and others haven't. And so here is the corollary that is even scarier for most of us:

It is absolutely true that you or I could easily become the homeless person we fear so deeply. 

The one thing that separates us is that we who are not homeless have resources, and usually those include a support network for when times are hard, whereas the homeless don’t.  That is the only difference.  And sometimes even that difference is a slim, fleeting and tenuous one.

For two and a half months this summer, the children and I were homeless. We did not have a home. I became all too aware that the difference, again, was that we had resources which included and continue to include a support system.  Therefore we were lucky and we had a place to sleep each night.  We bopped around from house to house, dragging our bags, not in a grocery cart, but in my car (another resource that I have that many homeless do not, though again, that, too, is not universal). We did not experience what it was to have to sleep on the street.  We did not experience fear of the police, of being moved from whatever shelter we found, of being attacked, or of having our things stolen.  We did not experience hunger or worrying about where we would eat next.  I am not unaware that our experience was completely different from what the normal homeless population experiences.  

But I did learn some things.  I learned how hard it is to feel ungrounded, displaced, and without a place that is "ours" to go home to.  I learned that it is extremely stressful and hard on kids (and adults) to be moved around from place to place, to not be able to relax, to feel that we can't breathe or we might break something that wasn't ours.  I learned how easy it was for things to go missing as we moved from place to place, sometimes expensive or irreplaceable things, and how few things we could actually manage to take with us as we moved around so often.  I learned what things, therefore, were "necessary" and what things were really luxuries.  I learned that each day was an unknown, each day the schedule was unpredictable, each day involved chaos, and stress, and confusion.  I learned that when all you have is each other, you do bond closer together, but it doesn't mean you are always nice to one another.  Stress causes crankiness, it just does.

Without a home address I was unable to register my kids for school. Without a home address I was unable to get a California driver's license.  Without a home address I couldn't even obtain a library card, or a grocery discount card.  Without the California driver's license, other doors were closed to me as well.  I couldn't get anything notarized, I couldn't set up a bank account, I couldn't get local checks.  In each of those cases I not only had to give an address, but had to provide "proof of residency", something I simply could not provide.  There was no address to forward my mail to. There was no place to receive my bills.  Without "free wifi" places like Starbucks, I really would have struggled to do these basic things like paying bills and staying in touch with those who could help us along the way. Without a cell phone I really would have been sunk in terms of how to connect with the resources that would help us to get "un"-homeless.  Without my car...well, there is just nothing we would have been able to do.

Financially, moving across the country, trying to get into housing, dealing with still having a house to sell in Ohio - none of that would have been possible without the financial help of my extended family.  And of that, too, I was all too aware.  I had a job here.  I had it immediately and that, too, is a difference from what our homeless brothers and sisters often experience.  And yet even with that job, I needed help financially.  I learned it is extremely expensive to be homeless, and to move, and to set up in a new place.  If something had happened to my parents during that time?  All of us would have been in serious trouble.

I learned.  I learned what I said above.  The only difference between us and the homeless is that we have a support network with resources including the generosity of others that allowed us to be okay, each and every day.  I learned what I have said before, that to those who have, even more will be given, and that to those who have not, even what they have gets taken away (NOT taken by God, but by our culture which fears and distrusts the "have nots" to such an extent that they are simply not allowed to get what they need).

I was all too aware, as I dragged my children with me everywhere I went of places that had policies that discriminated against the homeless and others who are "without".  If a place made a "no children" policy or a "no loitering" policy then my children and I could not be there.  We had places to go, family to be with, friends to visit.  Still, without a home, there were times when we meandered, when I felt we could not impose on someone and went to find places to be during the day.  We went to parks and libraries.  But I wondered how we would have managed if we had not had places to stay at night.

We want to put the homeless in a separate category.  We want to believe it is their fault they are without, and that if they had planned, or had worked, or had...whatever it is, that they would not be homeless.  We want to believe it is their "karma" that has led them there and that, therefore, we have no responsibility to help them.

But I say to you again what I said before, there is no difference between the homeless and us except for resources.  And if we were to care for one another as we are called to do, there would not be homelessness in the way there is now (there still might be a few who choose not to have a home - that is a different situation and is such a tiny percentage of the population that it is not what I am focusing on here).  If we were to care for one another in the way we are called, then we would not have to fear the homeless because we would not have to fear being "without" ourselves.  We would know that we would be okay because the community would help us get back on our feet.  We would know that our kids would be okay.  But that is not the way things are now.  In our fear, we see them as "separate", as "other" and as "not like us". And so, in our fear, we keep them ever more "separate", "other" and "not like us" even when this is a myth we are buying, selling and promoting.  This myth escalates the problem.

We won't get through this treating people as different or as other.  We won't grow or be safe until we truly get that we are all one and that when you hurt, I hurt too; or until we understand that, as Seal put it so eloquently, "I may not know what you're going through, but time is the difference between me and you." We won't know community and love and peace until we treat all people with the kind of care and compassion we are called to embody.

I am grateful for my limited experience of "homelessness" just for the reminder of how close we really are to being truly homeless and truly without.  May it inspire more compassion within me as I encounter those who "have not" each day. I wish compassion and understanding for you as well.