That homeless person walking down the street, the one you cross the street so you and your children don’t have to smell him or hear him mumbling incoherently to himself, that man or woman is somebody’s child. You tell yourself they must have a mental illness and it’s so sad our government saw fit to close all the institutions in which they used to be housed. Better to be maltreated in a place like that than to wander the streets crazy, filthy, stinking, right? At least we wouldn’t have to look at them, hear them, smell them.
How could they let this happen to themselves? Have they no self respect? Think about this; just perhaps you defaulted on your student loans and they garnished your wages and your tax returns, you lost your job, ran through your unemployment. Your house (the one you worked the last twenty years for) was foreclosed on or you got evicted, you sold the car, and ate till the money was gone. Perhaps you served your country and aren’t able to find work in what the military trained you for (killing; not a highly sought after skill in modern American society). Most of us are only one paycheck, injury, or illness away from this very predicament.
As you wonder why THEY can’t keep a job or pay the rent, maybe you could think about what it might be like to not have a safe place to sleep. When you think about their stink, think about going without a bath or shower for weeks or months because you don’t have access except for the sink at the public library which isn’t open every day, and having no place to wash your clothes or money to wash them at the laundromat. You stopped buying shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste when the pain in your stomach demanded food as a priority. Think about sleeping on the ground in all kinds of weather. Hot. Cold. Wet. Maybe you only own the clothes you have on right now, and a jacket to use as a blanket. You don’t always have access to public bathrooms so occasionally you must improvise. How ya feeling so far? Skin crawling yet? No bath, dirty clothes, sleeping on dirt, shitting in same, we’re having some fun here.
Now imagine, you haven’t had a decent meal in days. You have no clue when you will eat again, but you keep a 29 cent can of cat food in your backpack for emergencies, you know the value of protein after all. You go to the homeless shelters, churches, anywhere you can get food. It’s rare to have a fresh vegetable or fruit, canned and overcooked is as good as it gets. You dig through moldy garbage cans and rat infested store dumpsters looking for anything that resembles food on the bad days when the churches and shelters aren’t serving up the white macaronis, and breads, and starches of the American standard diet. It sort of fills your belly, but that’s all. As loathe as you are to admit it on the worst days you have stolen a small bun, a packet of cheese, or an apple from the grocery store, but you are so racked with the adrenaline and the ensuing cortisol dump of maybe being caught, it takes you two hours to settle down enough to eat the food you’ve stolen, and then it doesn’t taste very good. You don’t have enough or good enough nutrition to think straight.
You need a shampoo and a haircut, haven’t had your teeth cleaned or seen a dentist or doctor since your insurance ran out years ago and have an infected tooth. The glasses you got six years ago when you had your last eye exam are holding together very well with duct tape, stolen from the hardware store. The soles of your shoes have a multitude of layers of moldering and peeling cardboard in the bottom, held on with more duct tape. Your backpack, if you have one, carries your whole life. You can’t even get a library card because you don’t have an address.
You haven’t seen your family and don’t know when you will again. The spouse took the kids to live with the in-laws. You can’t bring yourself to ask for help anymore. You were never mentally ill before but now you are starting to wonder about your sanity.
Ok, so your skin is crawling with rashes, infections, and bugs, you stink yourself out, you’re in pain in so many places you’ve lost count, you haven’t slept for days, you’re eating food most people won’t give their dogs, and doubting your sanity. You’d like a steak, a glass of wine, a shower, a toothbrush, and a bed. Clean clothes, shoes, and a job would work too. What’s that you say? Are you scratching, talking out loud, maybe even shouting at the world? Feeling a little crazy, yet? I need to cross the street. I’m not feeling real good either.
Please. Next time you walk by this person remember there but for the grace of God and the Universe are you and I, one paycheck, or injury, or illness away from the same fate. Remember that person is somebody’s child. Remember the milk of human kindness. Offer some empathy and/or sympathy. Ask his/her name. Ask if you can help. Give them real food and help them eat it; they may be so sick it might take a while; give them the kindness of your time. Offer to pay for a shower or a safe room to sleep in. Give them clean new socks, new shoes, a warm coat, a sleeping bag. It’s not we vs them. It’s about US; we are all connected. If we let one person, just one, even one, live like this we have failed in ourselves and our society to respect the dignity of every human regardless of whatever factors makes them different from us.
And if we wait for “the government” to solve the problem, it will never be resolved. Never is a long time. As caring individuals? We can solve homelessness one person at a time. One person at a time we might create miracles.