How to Help the Homeless
The Resident Poet
She's little, thin and deeply tanned with a craggy, weather-beaten face and thin, flyaway, wispy hair. She might be 50, she might be 75, it's hard to tell, in the dim light and knowing that tan comes from years in the streets.
She tells me, with no drama and almost no emotion, just a sort of bewildered mild hurt, how she was rousted from sleep beneath the bridge and "arrested", but not jailed, taken to the police station and then told by the police that they did it to "scare her", and then told that if they caught her sleeping under the bridge again, they would drive her to "the Valley" and leave her there, so she can't come back.
He's grizzled and grungy, not dirty, just a bit worn, with several days' growth of scraggle beard. He might be 30 something, might be 40 something or even 50 something. It's hard to tell under the grizzle. He calls the hiding place he's found for his tiny stash of belongings his "apartment", and he tells me how his two friends were rousted from their sleep by kids on big skateboards who ran them over and knocked them down when they tried to get up, running into and over them repeatedly, laughing and insulting as they went, leaving the two men they'd awakened so rudely with cuts, bruises and broken bones.
He tells me how a local Facebook page posted photographs of him and other homeless friends sitting on a bus bench charging their phones on the new jacks the city put up on the bus kiosks, and how the commenters roundly condemned the homeless folks for having phones in the first place, let alone using the public charging jack to charge them up.
And then she chimes in to relate how the same page told the world how she is a dog thief, and really is a rich lady from up on the hill, has a house and just slums it to rip off people for money she doesn't need. She says, plaintively, "I wish they'd tell me where this house is, 'cause I want to go home."
She has no dog. Her tan and wrinkles are from being in the sun-beaten streets for years. Her voice has none of the culture of the wealthy; it's the simple, almost rough speech of someone who went to school, but never had the time and money to pursue a "higher education". If she lives up the hill, she's got a serious case of Dissociative Identity Disorder.
He tells me neither of them do drugs, drink, or thieve, and yet they are lumped in with those who do, and how many of those who do are otherwise good people, who just hurt too much and don't know another way to ease their pain or to survive in the streets.
They both say how sometimes, it just helps to have someone just LISTEN to them. And because I did, they tell me how they will never let anyone "mess with" my van, or with me. They tell me how "nice" I am, and how great it was to meet me. And I walk away thinking, no one should be so beat down that the simplest thing, just listening and commiserating for a few minutes in passing, should effect them so deeply.
Later, at the laundromat, I meet a tiny little lady who tells me, unexpectedly and in the course of conversation, that she was molested at the age of six. When I leave, I tell her, she is not alone, and she is STRONG, to survive and go on this long. I tell her, no one had any business putting their hands on her that young, and I see tears start to her eyes. I want to hold her for a long time and let her cry, and hope it heals something. She lives in a van too, not by choice, like me, but by necessity, and has been turned down for disability 16 times. I don't know what her disability is, but she's so quiet and soft-spoken and those tears are real.
The world is full of backstories like these. Some people manage to keep on going, and manage to hold onto shelter and employment and even family and friends. Not everyone does. Their stories get buried under societal prejudice, ignorant assumptions, negative focus.
It is my belief that, if we were to reform how we handle "helping" people in the streets, it should not be to force people to stop feeding them, sheltering them, giving them money, and force homeless people to seek help ONLY through the "established" and PLAINLY inadequate channels of too few and overwhelmed community outreach centers, shelters and counseling. It should be at the level of the streets.
No one who has not lived close to the street stands a ghost of a chance of even beginning to understand what "these people" are up against. I thought I understood, before I took to the road in my van, got stuck in California, and started helping people as they crossed my path. I have always been empathetic, empathic, and intelligent, imaginative enough to put myself into shoes I've never walked in.
But when I started listening, spending time pacing someone who was on the edge of death itself in the streets, I found out even I did not truly know. I did not know how to help. I'd have said the same thing: here is a list of shelters, resource centers, counseling agencies. Go to them and get the help you need.
I went to those places with them. I sought some help for myself, and sought to get them the help they needed. And I found out why it doesn't work.
And I found out the first thing I did worked more good than all these shelters, resource centers and such have done for anyone in all the time I've been doing this: I listened.
And that, my dear ones, is where I believe we must start. We must listen. Listen until the bluster and bravery are gone, and all that is left to relate is the cold, harsh truth of lives gone wrong, broken, misled, beaten down, and forgotten in the streets of every city in this great country. Listen until we truly understand that the first thing everyone in the streets needs is love. Everything else can grow from there, and it needs no funding from government or rich donators.
I don't have the rest of it fleshed out yet. I just know that this is where it must start. Listen. With love.
"I wish they'd tell me where that house is, 'cause I want to go home!"
Morning. I’m drinking my coffee when his photo pops up in my cellphone memories. And I’m thrown three years backward. I remember it all too well.
There I am, watching him. He sits on the steps of the Shell Station. A backpack beside him. His skin is rawhide. His beard is white.
His name is Buck. He’s from North Carolina. He says he completed two tours in Vietnam.
He’s not here begging, he’s resting his feet.
“My old feet hurt more’n they used to,” says Buck. “Hard getting old, buddy.”
There is a half-smoked cigar next to him. He dug this used cigar from an ashtray. It still has life in it, he says.
He’s sipping coffee.
“First cup’a joe I had in a week. Fella gave me a quarter a few minutes ago. Piled my coins together to buy me a cup.”
When Buck went inside to buy it, there were only cold dregs left in the pot. He asked the cashier if it were possible to brew a fresh pot. She told him to get lost.
“But I’m paying for it,” he insisted.
She escorted him to the door.
So, he’s drinking dregs for which he paid full price—for which he is grateful.
There are holes in his shoes. He found these sneakers in a sporting-good-store dumpster. Buck estimates he’s put nearly eight hundred miles on them. Who knows if he’s exaggerating or not. Buck has a flare for the dramatic.
Still, his bloody toes poke through the fronts. His middle toenail is missing.
Buck explains, “God says, ‘Don't worry what you’ll eat, drink, or wear.’ And I believe it. But it's hard sometimes. ‘Specially when you ain’t eaten and you don’t have [cussword] to wear.”
So I walk inside the gas station on a mission. I ask the aforementioned cashier to brew a fresh pot of coffee—I tell her it’s for me. I am very polite about it.
She smiles and says, “Sure, sweetie.”
Ain't she sweet.
I buy a hot cup, an armful of snacks, and a pack of Swisher Unsweetened Mini-Cigars. I give them to Buck on the sidewalk, and I tuck a bill into his hand. I wish I had something bigger, but I don't.
You would think helping someone down on their luck would make you feel good all over. Instead, it just makes me feel like I can’t do nearly enough.
Buck starts crying.
And the truth is, I’m embarrassed to even be telling you all this. Because this story isn’t about me—it’s about Buck.
Buck says with glazed eyes, “Did you know that I see God in you?”
And now I’m the one who has some major eye-glazing going on.
I stumble over my own words. All I can get out is, “Thank you for your service.”
I'm a bumbling fool. The words sounded better in my head than they sounded coming out of my mouth. They seem so… Lightweight.
He smiles. He stands to walk away. His big backpack must weigh eighty pounds.
“Going to Walmart,” he says. “Gon’ buy me some new shoes. Gon’ get me a hot pizza, man. Yessir, just saw God on the street corner.”
And he's gone.
I’m a middle-aged American. I’ve never known hunger. I’ve never not had a Sheetrock ceiling to cover my head. In many ways I'm spoiled. I'm lazy. I'm selfish. And sometimes, I get so lost in my own self-centered world that I can't see.
I just met someone. An invisible someone. A man who—despite whatever his problems may be—isn't lost at all. A man who knows things, different truths than I will ever know.
Yes, he smokes secondhand cigars. But he also sees mankind. He sees us at our most charitable. And he sees us at our worst every time we tell him to get lost.
He sleeps in the open air, counting stars, covered by his military-surplus blanket. He prays for heaven to feed him every day. And somehow heaven does.
He is a man who people overlook because it's easier that way. A man who asked me for nary a thing.
Mister Buck, sir. Today, you met a young redhead who happened to have a few extra dollars in his pocket. A guy who wishes he could do more for an American serviceman, but is too ignorant to know how sometimes.
So you were wrong, Buck. You didn't see God on a street corner today.
I'm Homeless But I'll Be Okay
After leaving a store today my daughter did something that made me stop and think.
There was this guy sitting there crying and she asks me:
“Did you see that man crying?
What's wrong with him?”
“Yes but I'm not sure maybe he's just sad...”
”Maybe he's hot and thirsty.”
She walked over to him and goes:
”Hi sir be happy it's a nice day it's not raining.
Are you hot?
Why don't you go home the ground is dirty?“
”I have no home but I will be ok.“
She looked at him with the saddest face and goes:
”So that means you're homeless.
So you have no food because you have no refrigerator.“
She gave him a few dollars out of her purse and her drink and said:
”Please go eat.
It would make me happy.
I like McDonald's you should go there.“
I could tell she made his day.
On top of that two more people came up and gave money as well.
We had a small conversation and he explained his trailer burnt down and he lost everything including his wife.
I felt for him.
It just warms my heart.
A 6 year old lead by example this morning.
Kids see no color and that's exactly how it should be.
It's not just a statement saying that the children are our future, it's a FACT.
That gives me a little more hope for the world.
“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.” — W. Dyer
This quote by Wayne Dyer haunts me. It first appeared in my social media feed several years ago after a friend became homeless. Rather than search frantically for another minimum wage job, she chose to move into and start selling jewelry from her van. I was horrified. She, on the other hand, was strangely content. Rather than bemoan her situation, she kept her focus on three goals: make and sell jewelry, meet and help good people, and find ways to overcome her health challenges.
Over the years, my friend’s adventures have taught me many things. I learned to look past outer appearances; to see homelessness as a symptom of how we are failing one another rather than an indication of how an individual has failed at life. I discovered that often it is those with the least who give the most — who refuse to look away, who show up and share their last cup of rice, who move heaven and earth to find a temporary home for a dog while his person is in the hospital…the list goes on and on.
Then eight months ago, the mirror of judgment turned on me. Suddenly I was the one without a penny to my name; the one who couldn’t find a job; the one who was eating nothing but oatmeal and facing eviction from my home. Everywhere I turned, people I thought were friends judged me harshly. They were annoyed that I wanted to talk about my predicament, and either offered unhelpful advice or disappeared all together.
At first, I was indignant and hurt. I was the same person I’d always been — the one working 50 or 60 hours a week to keep my business afloat — the one who was now devoting every waking moment to finding a job. But that didn’t seem to matter. It was as if I had become a pariah, a symbol of something they found pitiable or distasteful. Then it hit me. They were afraid. I was living their own worst nightmare and they couldn’t get away from me fast enough.
As a recovering perfectionist, I was intimately acquainted with this mindset. I grew up judging myself and others by how I looked, how fast I swam, and how I performed on tests. I learned that I was in competition with others for love, grades, and jobs. My survival depended less on who I was than on how well I was able to please others.
It took me many years, and lots of help, to get past this way of seeing and being in the world. Now, thanks to a simple twist of fate (and we all have them), it was my turn to love and validate myself — to ask for help and accept it knowing I was not only worth it, but would be able to pay it forward one day.
Today, Wayne Dyer’s quote appeared again and I have the chance to make that payment. I have been asked to help a friend of a friend named Lisa; someone whose story is long and complex. All you really need to know is that she is a good, kind, hardworking soul who has been diagnosed with NINDS Nuromyelitis Optica (NMO).
NMO is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system in which the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells and proteins in the body. It is both excruciatingly painful and incurable. As a result of her condition, and her attempts to find medical care, Lisa is homeless and living in her truck with her canine buddy Bella-Boo.
The good news is that Lisa has both a job and a place to live lined up if she can get the money needed to repair her truck and pay the deposit for her apartment. The even better news is that we have the chance to make this happen together. It doesn’t have to be a lot. It doesn’t even have to be money. It can be as simple as forwarding this post to someone with a note saying, “thought you might be able to help.”
Let’s be there for Lisa and for ourselves. Let’s see past the labels and remind one another that we are better together, and that what helps one helps us all.