The Argument for Homelessness
I was on LinkedIn this morning and I saw a post / Headline:
San Francisco billionaire gives $30M to study homelessness
In my simple view: it’s a tech company owner trying to do a good thing with his excess of money on a philanthropic level. Good.
So, the article didn’t throw me so much – but the comments were incredible. Made me sad actually. As you might suspect, the comments ranged from support for the Billionaire doing a study to people questioning why he just didn’t give the homeless the money directly. Some of the comments were crass and not thought-out and some were interestingly veiled swipes at how the author of the comment could “do it better if they were a billionaire.”
I read all of the comments. And what I learned is that most people sharing their views on the subject had an arms-length understanding of the issue. They’ve probably never experienced being homeless. Never had a family member or known of someone out on the streets. If they did, just like anything else we’re familiar with, our experience with this tragedy would show in some form of compassion and empathy. There were none in most of these viewpoints.
As most people who know me and as I detail in my first book, I was homeless as a child. I like to say I was “homeless by choice” because unlike a lot of people who find themselves out on the streets, I had an enormous group of people who cared for me to a certain extent and I knew I could go somewhere if I wanted too. That’s a different kind of homelessness. I just didn’t want to a burden to anyone. I was alone, and scared and in danger. Always in danger.
I met a lot of people who were homeless in my time. I think what I understood most about people was exactly that – they were people. They were human beings with these incredible stories of a life once lived until something happened unimaginable that brought them to the streets. Some of the people I met were funny. Some were quiet and others loud. Some angry and rightfully so. All of them scared. And if they weren’t THAT, then they had lost their mental faculties long ago. Also, completely understandable…
You know how you come home from a long day at work where your boss just didn’t give you a break during a meeting and your co-workers threw you under the bus and you just couldn’t wait to get home to sit, on your couch and have a glass of wine just to relax? Maybe it’s not just one day at work that was bad – but let’s say you missed a deadline or you lost a client or you messed up really badly and it’s just been a long hard couple of weeks. We’ve all experienced that, right? Maybe you have a drink or two – more than a couple of times that week – just to relax. To forget about all of it. It deadens the pain a bit – you just want to shake it off – whatever happened – and finally get some sleep.
Imagine it never getting better. Not next week, or the week after. Or the month after…
It’s not that difficult to see how easily you can become an alcoholic or depressed – especially when you get fired, lose that job and can’t get another. Your unemployment, your savings, all gone. In this example, let’s just keep this fictitious person as a single man with no children. His social life revolved around his career and so his friends/co-workers are afraid to talk to him because they don’t want the same thing to happen to them. He loses his apartment because he can’t make the rent. He already gave back his car. He’s called in a few favors, but he’s already slept on friends’ couches who are clearly ready to have him leave. He doesn’t want to be a bother – especially since he got real sick in the interim, had no health insurance and they helped him get better, bought his prescriptions, had been feeding him, providing shelter. He feels like a loser – he can’t get it together. He’s sold everything. He’s depressed, but he tries to stay strong. And yeah, he’s been drinking his friends wine – and now he knows it’s time he moves on so he tells them he’s grateful for the help but he decides to just find a bench to sit on at the beach somewhere and figure out what’s next.
All this time in his head he’s rethinking how he got here. What did he do to deserve this? He goes to a local church to pray – he’s never been religious, but he tries anyways. He has no money, a priest tells him where he can find a shelter… and when he gets there, he eats and he cries because being in the shelter confirms he’s nothing. He was never supposed to be here. He was a Marine for goodness sake.
He stays in the shelter for as long as he can. But it smells, it’s crowded and he’s not like these other guys. He can’t take all the crazy people there. So, he goes back to a bench. Near the beach.
When you walk on by, you see this guy talking to himself. When I walk on by, I see a guy asking, praying, begging to understand why this happened and trying to figure things out.
This has been all of three weeks. His newfound homelessness. Imagine, a year?
My argument for homelessness is that WE, those of us not currently homeless, dig deep and find empathy. It’s the least we can do. The way to start solving the problem of homelessness is to first STOP thinking it’s NOT OUR PROBLEM.
I was on the streets because I never knew my father and my mother died of a cardiac arrest due to asthma when I was 11 ½ years old. My mother was a housekeeper, a teacher’s aide, living barely paycheck to paycheck with no real idea that she wouldn’t live long enough to see me turn 12.
Now some would argue that I was just a kid, it wasn’t my fault – and I would say, that makes it quite comfortable for you doesn’t it? That makes you feel better, right? We were all kids once. I should have fallen through the cracks. Statistics say I should have become a drug addict and pregnant and become nothing more than what statistics say – but can you guess WHY none of that happened? Why I never became a statistic?
Because of empathy.
Empathy means: The ability to understand and share the feeling of another.
People saw a child in pain and instead of complaining about the problem at hand: Who left this child alone? Who’s going to pay for this kids welfare? What is wrong with this kid? Why do I have to deal with this? Why is this kid homeless? What did she do? Instead of judging me, instead of being angry at the inconvenience, instead of beating me down when I was already low, instead of considering me an annoyance and a problem – people, blue-collar, hard working people with nothing themselves, all took turns doing what they could to walk me through a possibly terrible time in my life. That’s what my book CANELA is about. It’s about ALL OF THEM and what they did to make sure I “made it out”. And there were so many others who didn’t make it IN the book. This wasn’t some coordinated effort by a neighborhood, most of these people never even knew each other – but they had empathy for a kid. I mattered. I was never a foster child legally but to this day, I have many families and people that I consider mi familia because of their empathy. Support. Kindness.
The first thing to do in order to help the homeless is to stop thinking they are people beneath you and unworthy of your attention. You do NOT need to give a homeless person any money when they are begging on the street – I’d actually suggest that you don’t do that because if you live in any city like I do, you’ll be giving money away all day long because the homeless situation IS that big. But you can start to look at them with dignity. You can start to send them a loving kindness in your thought instead of your typical annoyance and hatred as if they need that burden on them as well. You can start helping the homeless by stopping that ever important need to make it about YOU – how it bothers YOU, makes YOU feel sad, blah, blah, blah.
SEE THEM. Imagine the beautiful people they were and how they can be again. In order to help the homeless we can start by just thinking of them with kindness. Change our perception and our attitudes of what homelessness is and realize that these are actually beautiful people and YES, you can SEE them and you CAN understand HOW they got here. If someone asks me for money, I always say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.” And it’s from a place of true genuine kindness and respect. Not hatefulness. Not once have I been treated badly for treating someone with respect. If anything, they thank me kindly and return a smile. Even still, I’m not saying you need to talk to anyone at all or respond, but if you have hatred and anger in your soul about someone, they can feel it. And it matters. You know how you feel when your boss is pissed at you even if he hasn’t said a word about it? That’s what these people feel too.
I pride myself on the life I came from and person I am today. No matter who I’m dealing with I am graced with the fact that I treat everyone with dignity and respect at least until they don’t deserve it any longer. The homeless do get a bit more leeway and understanding from me for sure. But only because I know that most every day a homeless person encounters another human being who isn’t homeless, they’ve probably been treated horribly, looked down upon and maybe even cursed at for merely existing the best way they can. I never want to treat any human being like that. I just can’t.
Empathy. It’ll cost you nothing at all. But can be the beginning of something big. And if you really want to do something about the homeless problem, then start with being a better human being yourself.