The Homeless Are Our Canaries

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Do some people “deserve” compassion more than others? A lot of people mean well, but based on my conversations, there is definitely a filter being applied to the unfortunate. I know someone who volunteered once for Habitat for Humanity. He lasted a single day. He wouldn’t go back because he felt that the people whose house he was helping with had a car that was too nice. And so the Judgment Engine roared to life:  clearly, if they could have a car that nice, they didn’t need his help. They didn’t deserve his help.

The problem with judgment is that without accurate information, you start jumping to conclusions—which are probably incorrect. Their car could have been a hand-me-down. They may have bought the car new during a time when they were able to afford it, but they have come down in the world since then. Who’s to say?

Probably the most maligned group of people, however, are the homeless. I spoke recently with someone who believed that they should be put to work by the city to get help. There’s nothing wrong with the city providing jobs for those who can work, but he was assuming that the homeless were there because they were idle, and not because they might be mentally or physically ill, which is often the case.

My wife Ahnna worked with the homeless for many years, so we know that there are many reasons that people become homeless. Sometimes it’s as simple as gentrification:  one man became homeless for many years when his apartment building was knocked down to make way for some fancy condos. The price of housing keeps going up, and many people are being left behind. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a school bus stop at the night shelter. There aren’t enough family shelters, so often the kids would get into the parents car, where they would all sleep for the night. The children would hand over what food they had managed to get at school to share with their parents.

While whole families do become homeless, more people are working to house them. Single adult males are the last in line to be helped. Approximately 33% of these men are veterans.

Statistics are important, but stories are what help build compassion. Ahnna ran a nonprofit to help people who qualified for Social Security disability to get their benefits. This is harder than it sounds; the Social Security Administration does not just stand ready to hand out checks to those who apply. Their first (and second, third, fourth) response is:  “Prove it.”

One of Ahnna’s more memorable clients was brought into her office by another homeless man. She had seen “John” around the day shelter, but he never spoke to anyone. He also had the habit of living in a layer of his own shit, so he was definitely fragrant. At first, he didn’t want to work with Ahnna. She had the mark of the devil on her forehead, he said. It took a long time to gain enough of his trust to get him to sign a document allowing her to help him. She found his grateful mother, who had been looking for him for five years. John was schizophrenic. He had a 4.0 grade point average in college before his first psychotic break at age 22. No one had been able to help him since then. Eventually, he got his benefits, which meant that he could be housed in a medically supervised situation. He was able to be medicated.

When Ahnna saw John some time after that, she barely recognized the polite, clean, soft-spoken man who thanked her. Hopefully, he is still housed and still on his medication. Drugs for schizophrenia can have unpleasant side effects, and sometimes the sufferer decides to quit them (maybe because they “feel fine”), which brings back all of the symptoms of their psychosis.

About 20-25% of the homeless are severely mentally ill. Asking them to do anything resembling a regular job is impossible. They literally cannot “earn” your compassion through work.

Some people become homeless by simply struggling to get through life. “Richard” came to Ahnna in midlife. He was afraid she would not want to help him if she knew the truth about him. The truth was that he had served time in prison in his youth for killing a man in self-defense. It was a drug deal gone bad, and he admitted that he was a stupid kid. He killed the man who attacked him with a knife. When he was released, he found himself in the unenviable position of having a criminal record. If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ve probably seen that checkbox asking if you’ve ever committed a crime. Checking that automatically rules you out of most jobs.

Still, Richard did what he could. Although homeless, he started his own gardening business. He didn’t have a car, but he had a bike with a trailer and some tools. Richard was already disabled by severe dyslexia, but when a truck ran over his foot and broke it, that was the end. He could no longer ride his bike. Then, since he was living outside, someone stole his tools, effectively killing his business. JOIN, a local homeless outreach center, was able to get him housed because his broken foot made him vulnerable. Eventually, he was able to get on benefits and spend a few years inside before dying.

Some homeless people are physically ill as well. In the United States, most of us are only one serious illness away from bankruptcy. This plays out on our streets every day. It might look something like this:  person becomes very ill. Person cannot work. Person eventually loses job. Person then loses insurance. Person has to make hard choices.

One of Ahnna’s clients had to make this choice:  cancer treatment or her mortgage. She could not afford both. No doubt concluding that living was better than dying, she chose the cancer treatment and ended up on the street. By the time Ahnna met her, she had regretted her decision. She wished she had chosen to keep her house instead, even though it would mean her death.

I’m one of those people who give money to the homeless when I have it. I remember being downtown once, and a young girl came up to me and asked me for change. In that moment, I did something terrible:  I looked at her youth and judged her. There was change in my pocket, but I shook my head. As she walked away, I realized she wasn’t wearing shoes. It was 40 degrees. I felt sick. That was my lesson. Why was she homeless? She may have come from an abusive home. Maybe her parents kicked her out (40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT). I don’t know what her story was, but I’ll never judge another homeless person asking for help again.

Aside from being thought of as lazy, many people assume that most homeless people are alcoholics or drug addicts. That is a problem. We don’t have universal healthcare, so the mentally ill self-medicate. Veterans with PTSD and other issues self-medicate as well. And frankly, I’ve always said that if I were homeless, I’d drink, too. (Technically, I’m not homeless and I drink a cocktail every evening, so who am I to judge?) Some people do become homeless because of their addiction, but one thing is certain:  there is no hope for recovery without some help getting housed. It’s impossible to get your act together when all you can think about is basic survival.

Here’s what a basic day looks like for a homeless person:  Wake up and secure your stuff. Hide it or take it with you. The first order of business is food and a bathroom. If you’ve ever had to ask for the key to a restroom, you’ve probably noticed that there aren’t many public bathrooms available to the homeless. Finding a place to take a shit can take half a day. One of Ahnna’s clients was obsessive about it:  he couldn’t do anything else until that one task was accomplished. As for food, maybe you have a little change to buy some. Maybe there’s a soup kitchen or church willing to offer some. Some businesses make food that they would otherwise throw out available. In order to eat, you have to have a map of your area in your head so that you know where you can find things:  breakfast. A possibility to pee or change a tampon. Or get a tampon. Or just wash your rags.

The rest of the day is yours to live through. If the weather is good, you’re in luck. If it’s wet and cold, maybe you can find a place to sit and shelter that doesn’t have spikes on it. Maybe the police won’t bother you today. Maybe they will. Hopefully they won’t take your stuff. The business owners think you’re bad for business. But the cops might find your camp in the park and take it away. It’s difficult.

At night, where are you going to sleep? What’s the weather like? If it’s freezing, better get to the shelter early to get a place in line. They only have so much room, and it’s first come, first serve. Do you know a good place to sleep where you won’t get beaten up or sexually assaulted?

I’ve known people who think that the homeless somehow “chose” it or “prefer to live that way.” There are definitely some who don’t know how to live any other way at this point. When you combine mental illness and years on the streets, you get a little feral. You forget how “inside” functions. Transitioning can be tricky, but it can be done.

More than anything, however, it’s important to remember that we are the homeless. They are people. They are us. There but for the grace of God go I. Judgment condemns, but compassion heals. It is our first and best resource. Let us all choose the path of compassion.

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