“We lived in our car sleeping behind convenience stores or parked along the highway. The traffic would lull me to sleep. We didn’t stay in one place long out of fear we would be discovered. When we weren’t in the car, we might stay with relatives, or rent a cheap apartment or live in a trailer. We lived this gypsy lifestyle because my father would be out of work or in jail. This went on for seven to eight years. It was our way of life.”
In January I was talking with a colleague. I was giving my “Jan talk” about how we, the nation need to take care of those who have less than. Specifically, the homeless. I was trying to make the point that some people just don’t have bootstraps to pull themselves up due to lack of education, family situation etc. She said “Come on I grew up in a car--you just figure it out and you pull yourself up.” I was shocked. I said “Really? You grew up in a car?”
The enormity of her past situation stayed with me for weeks. I could not shake the conversation. There I was going on with my earnest opinion and I am talking to someone who grew up in a car.
It gave me pause.
To this day, her mother keeps a pillow, a blanket, a small cooler and water in her car just in case. She is past living in her car, but ingrained self-survival habits are hard to change.
More recently my thoughts became intensely focused on this as I walked my dog Effie. There is a paved trail from the park that leads up to a Walmart. It’s a nice trail. I noticed as we approached the Walmart a blanket and a back pack shoved under a bush. It was there each time we walked by which is generally in the afternoon. Then I noticed in the wooded area what looked to be an abandoned campsite. We walked over to get a closer look. A collapsed tent and a significant amount of trash. This bothered me.
Recently I was in Chattanooga for a new Data Center build. It was along a railroad track and a bright orange tent stood about 75 yards from the facility. The client said a 41-year-old woman has been camped out there four months now. He said “You know she is somebody’s daughter, probably someone’s mother.” It was a sad moment. We have people in the United State living in tents beside railroad tracks. Really? This bothered me as well but I know that we do. I see them under bridges and downtown in the parks. I see them in every city I travel through.
I did a little research. The following stats are taken from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
-January 2105: 564,708 people in US were homeless on a given night.
-206,286 were people in families, and 358,422 were individuals.
-About 15% or 83,170 are considered chronically homeless individuals.
-About 2% or 13,105 are considered chronically homeless in families.
-About 8% or 47,725 are veterans.
These numbers come from Point-In-Time counts, which are conducted community by community, on a single night in January every other year. HUD requires communities to submit this data every other year to qualify for federal homeless assistance funds.
Some brief facts:
-Typically, families are homeless due to some unforeseen financial crisis. Medical emergency, a car accident, a death that prevents them from holding onto housing. Usually homeless families can bounce back with little public assistance.
-Young people often become homeless due to family conflict. Divorce, Abuse, LGBTQ issues. This is more difficult as public assistance is more geared to the adult homeless.
-Veterans often become homeless due to war related disabilities. Physical, mental anguish and PTSD issues.
Chronic homelessness is defined as involving either long-term or repeated homelessness coupled with a disability. This group of people account for 15% of the homeless. The rest are rotating in and out of homelessness due to the above factors.
What bothers me is the disdain some people have for the homeless. The “Go get a job” mentality. The attitude of the privileged toward those who have less than. (and I use that term lightly meaning you can pay your rent, own a car and feed yourself- let alone the really privileged which needs no explanation) The rationalization not to help because "they really are just scam artists begging for money on the street." You really don’t know, so any rationalized thoughts are just that. An opinion - without really seeing into the heart of the person. I am not saying they aren’t out there, the scam artists, I am saying there may be fewer than you think.
My friend Melissa was moved by an account many years ago, where a celebrity pretended to be homeless for three months. People walked right by, they would not look him in eye, they would not touch him, they treated him with disgust and disdain. It changed his life. It also changed my friend in the following way.
There is one corner in Atlanta off the highway on the way downtown. Melissa has traveled this route for years but no more than five times per month. There are typically homeless people at this corner because many of them live under the network of bridges in a self-made homeless community. Protected from the elements by the bridges.
It doesn’t matter how many cars are behind her she stops and waves the homeless person over. She takes them by the hand and says “What’s your name?” They tell her. She responds with her name and she looks them directly in the eye as she gives them money and says “God Bless you.” They always say it right back to her somewhat surprised someone is calling them by name and looking them in the eye. She does this every single time she sees someone on this corner. I watched and I learned a lesson. Every person is valuable. We don’t know how or why sometimes, but they were put in our path for a reason. I respect and admire this about my friend.
To finish my earlier story, this past weekend I was out walking the dogs up the path from the park again. I was walking in the morning versus the afternoon. I saw a black man with a cane coming toward me. He limped a bit, had on some ratty jeans but a decent shirt. We walked by and I said “Good morning” he said “Good morning ma’am, those are pretty dogs.” I said “Thank you.” I walked about 50 more yards to the stop sign where I turned around to walk back. I see the guy putting the backpack under the bush—he’s my guy! He is the owner of the backpack in the bush I see in the afternoons.
I looked in my fanny pack where I carry the poop bags and I have some money. I take it out. He sees me coming back and quickly picks up the backpack and puts it back on his shoulder. I get to him and I said “Are you okay?” He said, “I'm alright ma’am.” I remember my friend. I reached over and I took his hand and said “Do you have any money?” He said “not today ma’am.” I handed him the money and I said “you do now.” I kept hold of his hand and I said “what’s your name?” as I looked him directly in the eye and he said “James ma’am and God Bless you ma’am.” I said “My name is Jan and it a pleasure to meet you James.” He continued to say “God Bless you ma’am” and I said “James you were very kind to compliment my dogs and I appreciate you. Have a good day.” He looked at me and our conversation was finished. I believe he was brought into my awareness. Something I noticed for weeks via the placement of a backpack in the bush. I finally got to meet the owner. Spirit was talking to me.
Did it feel good? Yes. Hopefully for both of us. I learned a valuable lesson from my colleague and my friend. There are people in need who are deserving of our kindness, generosity and respect. We do not walk in their shoes. We cannot assume to know someone’s story. Maybe they are doing the best they can.
Brene' Brown in her book "Rising Strong" writes of a fundraiser for Lord of the Streets by an Episcopal Church in Houston dedicated to serving the Homeless. Father Murray Powell said, "When you look away from a homeless person you diminish their humanity and your own." Brene' after months of contemplating why we look away said, " I knew exactly why I looked away. I was so afraid of my own need that I couldn't look need in the eye."
Society needs to find a balance with Homelessness. Some people are so cynical they appear resistant to those who may be suffering. It is difficult to find common ground on this issue with those who seem incapable of being moved to empathy or tenderness. I have a greater appreciation for individuals that balance compassion with the stress of homelessness. Police officers, Fire Fighters, EMTs, Charities, Individuals, Churches and Community groups who reach out to support the Homeless.
Awareness. It’s the first step toward making the world a better place. While homelessness is not my passion, it is in my opinion part of my responsibility as a human being to help my brother. When I can and however I am able. I am grateful for the awareness and the encounter.
“When we practice loving kindness and compassion, we are the first ones to profit.”
Until next time.