When I lived in Washington, DC, I volunteered at a shelter for homeless women. One evening an attractive, well-dressed, middle-aged woman came in. She was made-up, wore silver bracelets, and sported a handsome chenille scarf. I asked if she was a board member. "No," she said. "I live here right now."
The assumptions I made about the other women who showed up there the obviously poor, disheveled, usually women-of-color who came in nightly for safety, a shower, and a place to sleep, were equally erroneous.
We make these kinds of assumptions all the time. There is something in our human nature that makes us quickly jump to conclusions, especially when we are judging "the others" among us the sick, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the disheartened. But the fact is none of these groups are monolithic. For better or worse, we cannot assume homogeneity, because like all the rest of us, every person's nature and narrative is unique, just like our own.
There was the woman in Washington who had a Ph.D. in Philosophy and had fallen on hard times, like so many other displaced homemakers. There are the veterans who find themselves homeless after years of service to their country. There is the man who lives in a tent not far from where I am writing this. "You wouldn't know, standing next to me, that I'm homeless," he told a local reporter. "I'm just like other people. I just don't have a home." And yes, there are the mentally ill, the substance abusers, the formerly incarcerated. That shouldn't inevitably make them scary folks.
Why do we have so much fear around homelessness? Why do we equate it with crime in the same way that we wrongly equate homosexuality with pedophilia? Why do we turn our backs on people on the street asking for a handout? What makes us want to avoid their eyes, even as we feel ashamed of our reluctance to do so?
I've been thinking about these questions since a shelter opened in my own town to more resistance than I would have expected from this usually kind and cohesive community. Some local business owners, known for their activism in other areas, expressed uncharacteristic concerns about shoplifting and loitering. Others said they feared an influx of undesirables. One merchant worried that elderly women would be afraid to be out on the street at night. Where does all that angst come from?
I'm no Pollyana. I've lived in cities big and small and I understand that the fears associated with urbanization and spawned by unemployment and poverty are not entirely groundless. Still, it seems to me that something is wrong with the social fabric when good people lose their sense of proportion and turn away from those in need of warmth (literally) and compassion.
Perhaps a homeless man said it best at a meeting to discuss the opening of the shelter here: "When you see a homeless person and speak [to them], we hear what you are really saying," he said. "We understand that you think we are less [of a person] than you, that we don't deserve your help, that you fear us. My dark skin and hair say to you I am a Native American. I tell you, I am American." Now employed and living in his own home, the man continued. "I am here today because someone thought I was worth helping"my message to you is not to give up [on the homeless]. We need this shelter."
We also, it seems to me, need to re-think our attitudes and assumptions about the homeless, and others in need of support. Once, when I still lived in Washington and was on a food run with a group that served hot meals to the homeless, there was a man I wrote about. He lived under a freeway. He had a long beard and his hands were gnarled and black with grime. When we handed him a meal, he wept. One of the women in the van got out and went to him. He asked if he could touch her. She hugged him and said, "You know, God loves you very much." His watery blue eyes spilled again. "And I love you very much," he said, looking at all of us. As we pulled away, we saw the man saying grace over his food.
On the ride home we tried to imagine being so starved for food and human touch but it was too awful to really feel. On that journey I crossed from one world into another, and gratefully, I came back again. It's not always that easy. Now I know that "there but for the Grace of God go I."