Saturday, September 03, 2011

What You Will Say Next

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is to not hate them, but to be indifferent to them. ~George Bernard Shaw

Seattle, with it's mild climate and liberal politics, is home more than it's share of homeless people, or at least homeless people who spend much of their time being visibly homeless, out on the streets and in our parks. As I write this in the early morning, I can look out my living room window and count a half dozen piles of blankets or sleeping bags dotting the lawn of the park across the street. In a couple hours, when I take the dogs out for their first walk of the day, those bedding pyres will still be there. Some of them will stay there until the late afternoon.

There's one guy in particular who has been there all summer. He sets up right by the sidewalk, under a large maple, but otherwise out in the open. Like I do, he sleeps with his feet outside the blanket, usually curled into a loose fetal position. At least that's what it looks like from the shape of his pile of bedding. He sleeps, however, with his head all the way under his blanket. I'll bet, in its way, it's cozy in there, dark, the cold world shut out. I wonder if he's able to imagine he's sleeping in a proper bed. I wonder if he imagines his mommy, any mommy, making a bed for him in her lap, in the circle of her arms, making it cozy, dark, shutting out the cold world. He's not one of those who sleeps the day away. Usually, by around 8 a.m., he's sitting up, propped up, still partially under his blankets, sitting there a few feet back from the sidewalk, watching the world. I imagine I see philosophy in his face, or maybe it's a Buddha-like peace I want to find there, as if he hasn't wound up here by accident, but has rather chosen it like one of those dharma bums Kerouac wrote about. One day I saw him across the street playing basketball by himself on the public courts there and he almost looked like anyone else. Other times I've seen him carefully washing out articles of clothing in the public drinking fountain, the one the skate board kids use when they get over heated, and I take comfort (as if my comfort matters) in the idea that he is still enough with us to be concerned about the daily matters of hygiene. But then there have been those other times when he shouts angry nonsense at non-existent tormenters.

A couple weeks ago I was contemplating a man in a pressed shirt, slacks and a tie who was approaching me on the sidewalk across from the park. As we walked toward one another, I noticed he limped, moving more slowly than most of the "suits" that populate our neighborhood during the day. (Those guys always seem to be in a hurry.) As he got closer I saw he had his graying hair pulled back into a ponytail tied at the back of his head. His face was heavy. His beard crudely shaven. That's when I recognized him as one of the guys who sleep in the park. From a distance he'd looked like anyone else, a man with something to do, places to go, people to meet. As he passed me I saw he was likely on his way to return the interview suit he'd borrowed from one of the churches or other social agencies in the neighborhood who help these guys. I can hope otherwise, but I'm sure he didn't get the job, not in this economy, not with all those younger people out there who own their own clothes and sleep in real beds.

A few days ago, as I cycled along Fairview Avenue near where it intersects with Eastlake, a leathery woman of no age at all, a woman who seems to be living on the floating walkway just under the bridge, stood on the sidewalk and wordlessly reached out toward me as I raced passed, her face cracked with some sort of plea. I expect her immediate concern was money, but I know she really wanted a lap-bed in which to curl up and find a little peace.

Yesterday, as I drove to pick my daughter up from her grandmother's house where she'd spent the afternoon, ostensibly, to learn a few lines of religious text to recite before her congregation during Yom Kippur, but mostly just to chat, I spotted a guy with his blankets pulled up over his head, on a dirty triangle of grass in the middle of a busy intersection in the middle of the city in the middle of the day. I hope he was at least dreaming of a lap-bed.

This morning a man sitting on a low wall smoking a cigarette suddenly began to rock violently as I passed, silently, but with a face full of anguish for several seconds, before returning as suddenly as he'd started to a pose of quiet contemplation.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by it all, which I suppose is why most of us, most of the time, pull the covers up over our own heads. It'll be easier to not think about them in a month or so when the rains return and they can not longer sleep out in the open in the park. It'll be easier to forget they're my neighbors when they're tucked away under bridges, and in alley ways, and in the doorways of vacant buildings.

I've been told by people I trust that for every "street person" we see there are a dozen other homeless people who are fortunate enough, or proud enough, or sane enough, or still motivated enough to find some kind of shelter for the night. These are the ones who are too busy taking care of their children, or looking for work, or generally trying to survive to hide out in the open on park lawns or panhandle at busy intersections with cardboard signs. I've been told by those same people that the "street drunks" are also not representative of the homeless who live among us, many of whom we pass everyday without thinking anything other than, perhaps, that there's a fellow human with a lot on her mind.

A huge percentage of these people are, however, mentally ill (between 25-40 percent; compiling statistics about this population is notoriously challenging), and if you combine that with those suffering from alcohol and drug addictions, often no doubt attempts at self-medication, well over half are in one way or another not of their right minds at any given moment.

This is not a post about policy, although I can think of dozens more humane than the ones in place now, nor is it a plea for you to get involved, although if you are so moved The National Alliance To End Homelessness is a good place to start. This isn't even a post about feeling sympathy or empathy.

This is just a post about noticing these people. Looking them in the eye. Saying, "Good morning." I know, I know, there is so much more we should do, but this is something we can do. We may not have the courage to offer them our lap, but we can notice them, even if they've forgotten how to smile back. And they did once know how, because they were once children and all children smile, but it's something you unlearn after awhile if no one responds in kind. This is a post about answering our children honestly when they ask about the sleeping bags in the park; they are sick, they are sad, they are homeless, they are overwhelmed.

And when our children want to help them, because when you tell them the truth, they will want to help . . . Well, I guess this is also a post about what you will say next. 

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LouAnna said...

Sometimes it just hurts too much. Sometimes it hurts too little. There was a carpenter once. He said something of note: Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

I think I spend too much time noticing motes. I think I shall have to do better

a sojourner said...

my daughter did ask. and i gulped and tried to answer (really, am still trying to answer). here's my blog post about it:

Melinda said...

Whenever we travel into Vancouver, B.C. we inevitably come across people with signs asking for money on the side of the street. We always bring with us a basket of fresh produce and offer each person we come across a piece of fruit. Most times they are extremely thankful.

CeeC said...

Thank you for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

My children asked me too. I explained much as you suggest. I am proud to say they wanted to do something to help, and organised a surplus veg stall all summer. They sent the proceeds to a homelessness charity in the same town where we saw the homeless people that began the conversation in the first place. A small amount of money, but a big feeling of taking action to make a better world. I think its so important to be honest, but give children a way to act too, so they are not overwhelmed by all the ills of the world.

Miss Holly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Holly said...

I saw this today and thought of your post:

surfingmonk said...

What a touching and well written article. It really touched me. Because when our children asked, we talked...a lot. Because these issues are not easily explained or understand by little ones. The organizations that we donate to are difficult for our kids to see the connection. What they came up with the idea of "Homeless Bags". My brilliant wife along with our 5 and 6 year old filled left-over grocery bags with individual servings of food that would last and was easy to chew....and socks (yes, socks seem to be in high demand for people living on the street). We keep them in our car and offer them to the people that we see asking for help. We don't really know if they are eaten and we don't really know if they are appreciated, but it is something that our kids feel like they can do to help. And I am thankful that I can also give them out. It gives me the opportunity to look the person in the eyes and connect.

kristin @ preschool daze said...

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is to not hate them, but to be indifferent to them. ~George Bernard Shaw

thank you.