Every time I would see him, I had to look his way. I was not trying to stare, not in the least, it’s just I was trying to figure it out. What was it about this homeless man that made him connect with my heart so much?
Maybe it had to do with his desolate and despondent gait. As he pushed his cart, he did so with a tired step. Or, maybe it just had to do with the fact that I had seen this man go from a healthy looking weight, with clothing that fit, to a much more thin appearance, with clothes that were noticeably too large for his size. That element alone was striking, to physically see the toll that his living situation had taken on his body and health.
I remember the first time I saw him. I was driving around the city running errands, and this white-haired, heavyset male was walking on the sidewalk. I remember tearing up upon seeing him that first time, and I couldn’t understand why his sight caught me so strongly. Then, later on in the afternoon, I was in another part of the city, on that same street, and there he was again. That man had walked miles, while I quite comfortably drove to and from my destinations. I’m not sure where he was going, and I’m not even sure if he knew himself, but he was heading somewhere.
I continued to see this man in various parts of the city from time to time. He would be outside of buildings sitting down, or just walking his path. But, I would see him often. Then, one day I saw him pushing his cart, which had buckled under the weight of his belongings. It saddened me so much. The basket had collapsed onto its bottom rack and he was struggling to push it. But, he kept going because he had no choice but to do so, and he wanted to keep his possessions with him.
And, then there came the day that put me into an emotional blender. I was on my way to work and listening to my music as always. I came to a stop at a light and was several cars back from the intersection. To my left was a local supermarket, which had a low brick wall that bordered its parking lot. He was there. He was sitting on the brick wall, along with his shopping cart by his side. And then, I saw the food: a single loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. He had been able to acquire the food by unknown means. The man was ripping pieces of bread off of the loaf and putting peanut butter on it. He sat there and looked pleased to have this feast before him.
As soon as I saw the food, I burst into tears. I was crying so hard that I couldn’t catch my breath, and as the light turned green I had to leave that spot of such emotional draw. Driving was difficult, as I just wanted to pull over and allow the dam in my eyes to fully break. I was trying to regain my composure, as work was coming into view and I knew that I couldn’t walk into the office with tears streaming down my face. I thought I had my emotions finally under control as I arrived at work, but as soon as I was greeted by one of my good friends, the tears came flowing once again. She thought something horrible had happened. My tears were reminiscent of those that come out from grief, those choking and airway passage-blocking tears. But, grief wasn’t what I was feeling.
I couldn’t understand it. Why was that sight so difficult for me to handle? It was a homeless man. It was a loaf of bread. It was a jar of peanut butter. It was a man having a meal. Such simple images, except they were not. Finally, it hit me. It wasn’t the fact that this man was eating food, but it was that he was eating such everyday food, in such an ordinary way. It was the way that he spread that peanut butter on the bread. It was the image of a fellow human being, living as just that… a human being. He wasn’t a homeless man at that moment. He was just a man. At some point in his life, he knew what having bread on his table meant. At some point he had tasted peanut butter, and knew that it was to be spread onto the bread. At one point, he was a man with a normal life, like the rest of society. He was living just as everyone else. That’s what hit me so hard, the normalcy of it all.
Please Don’t Turn Away
I understand the desire to maybe turn our eyes away from the homeless. It can be the result of many reasons, but more often than not I think it’s due to the fact that we feel hopeless. We don’t know how to help them, and so not making eye contact with the person, allows us to not feel the despair in our hearts that we so desperately want to keep at bay.
It’s not right, though. A homeless person is just that… a person. He or she is a living human being, with a heart, soul, and mind just like the rest of us. One of my favorite songs (one of many) is “Don’t Laugh at Me.” Multiple artists have sung the song, but my most favorite version is by Mark Wills, as his was the first I had ever heard. It should be used as the official anthem for how to treat our fellow brothers and sisters in this world.
The Dignity of Man
“Homeless” does not mean “human-less”. The day when I saw that man making a meal for himself, I knew that I had to go up to him. I had to acknowledge him and give him aid in some way. I just did not know when and where I would see him next. Well, that opportunity to help him came just about a week later. I had stopped at another supermarket after work one night, and there he was again. He was sitting just outside of the parking lot. I knew, then, that I had to buy him a bag of groceries and give it to him. Two of the items I purchased were a loaf of sliced bread and a jar of peanut butter, to go along with the other items. I didn’t have a whole lot of money on me at the time, but I tried to budget for enough items for him.
Once I was finished with my shopping I went back outside, but he was gone. I was so sad. I wanted to go up to him so badly, but he was gone. So, I walked disappointedly back to my car and began to drive off, when I saw him down the sidewalk on the other end of the parking lot. So, off I drove. A parking spot was open right behind him (Gee, I wonder who made that happen). I went up to him with the bag of groceries and I said, “Hello”. He didn’t speak a single word. He just looked at me, and so I pointed down to the bag I was holding and explained that it was for him. He had an appreciative look on his face as he took it. He then motioned me not to leave, and began to pull something out of his back pocket. I admit, I backed up a bit, not knowing what he was going to pull out, but then I noticed it was a wallet. I was stunned. I immediately began telling him, “No, no! You don’t have to pay me. This is for you, from me.” But, he continued to motion me to stay as he opened up the dollar slot of his wallet. He then pulled out rectangular shaped items, which at first I thought were money. I couldn’t believe he was trying to pay me, and I felt badly about it. I didn’t want him to feel obligated to pay me. That is wrong.
But, then I saw them, clear as day. They were three pieces of thin cardboard, cut into long rectangular shapes. On the front of them, were child-like drawings. It was obvious that the drawings were created by hand with a pen. In the middle of the pieces, a picture of a happy face, and each of the corners had the dollar ($) symbols. He handed them to me, with a look of pride on his face. He was paying me for his groceries.
I struggled to keep my emotions in check, as I said my farewells to the man and made my way back to my car behind him. Once I was out of his view, I broke down. What had just happened? This man was doing what we all do; paying for the goods we need to survive. And, to see the child-like drawings, was just emotionally heart wrenching. The same type of drawings that all children create when making play money was what I was looking at, but they were drawn with the beautiful hand of a man with dignity.
It was obvious from my interaction with the man that he had some form of mental disability, but that did not diminish his worth or dignity, in not only my eyes, but also his own. He proudly gave me that money, and I took it with great gratitude. I’m not sure what impairment the man had, but sadly it speaks to the statistics about many of our homeless brothers and sisters.
According to a 2009 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, 20-25% of the American homeless population suffer from a mental illness. That was three years ago, so I’m not sure what today’s statistics report, but those are scary and sad numbers to say the least. Our country needs to take a serious look at the mental health system and figure our where things are going wrong. We should not have those statistics in the 21st Century. We shouldn’t even have homeless in this century. A better way and solution must exist.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve often thought about that man. I’ve often wondered how he’s doing now, and where he is. I would hope that he has found help and is on a better path now, but I cannot know for certain. Due to by social anxiety, I don’t get out like I used to back then, and so I don’t see him anymore. The last time I saw him, was a few years ago, and his weight had significantly dropped. I could see the stress and toll that his years on the streets had taken on him. I ask myself if I’ll end up like him someday. After all, I have a mental illness and my life is nowhere near where it should be. I have loving parents, and if not for them, I’d be homeless. I try not to focus on such a thought, but it’s difficult. I’m not immune to homelessness. No human being, no matter how much money you may currently have, is immune to the cruel and life-tumbling event of becoming homeless. The Great Depression is a good reminder of that, but it doesn’t even take such an extreme example. Our country is currently going through a lot of economic turmoil. People are hurting all over, and they worry about their futures. Losing control of the basic necessities is a fear on everyone’s mind.
There is Hope
The homeless do have a home, though. They’re ensured a home in Heaven where they will be welcomed with open arms. Our Lord loves all of His people, but holds a special place in His heart for those who suffer such disparities and suffering during their lives. He promises them a place in His Kingdom, where they can be free from all of their pain and hardships.
“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.’” Luke 6:20-21 (NIV).
For now though, here on earth, the homeless still need shelter and clean clothing. They still need food and water. And, they still need love, respect, and compassion from their fellow brothers and sisters.
Hope exists. Hope exists, because we can give those necessities to them. Maybe we, as individuals, can’t give them everything, but we can give them something.
In doing so, we can pass the hope forward.