Some places are just not intended for human comfort.
Take, for example, the concrete pad behind the building where I work. Two heat pumps and a garbage can occupy the space, which is surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall. There are no picnic tables or chairs to indicate this is a place to hang out. Nor is there any cover from the elements, which means both the sun and the rain beat down on its surface.
And yet, for the past few weeks, it’s been someone’s sleeping quarters and safe space. As I was leaving out the back door for a meeting last week, I noticed “Mark” (not his real name) sprawled out on the concrete pad in the hot sun reading children’s books.
The books were donated to my organization to distribute free to anyone who walks through our office doors.
I asked “Mark” how he was doing, and he grunted at me. I continued to my car without bothering him because, well, the grunt meant he probably didn’t want to be bothered.
“Mark” is a thirty something year-old man with schizophrenia who has been coming to our office for years.
Sometimes he is taking his medications. Sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he has a place to live. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes, the system helps him. But most of the time, it fails him miserably.
He spends much of his time moping around town with his head hanging low and his pants hanging even lower. The police know him. He’s been arrested and even done jail time for trespassing. Many of our social service and mental health facilities know him. Even the people at the hospital know him.
One time, when he was desperate to get the demons out of his head and a safe place to stay, he actually called an ambulance to come get him at our office. That didn’t work out very well. He’s even been committed and spent a few days in a psychiatric facility. That didn’t work out very well either as he landed right back where he was before.
“Mark” isn’t capable of living on his own, but there are no facilities in our community for someone like him. From what I understand, he is an unwelcome guest at the rescue mission. He’s been robbed and taken advantage of by people who are more streetwise than he is. And much of the time, he stinks. Literally.
And yet my co-workers treat him with the same respect they treat our donors. They listen to him – even when he doesn’t make sense. They let him use the phone – even though we are fairly certain there is not anyone else on the call. And, on the occasions they’ve convinced him to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom and he’s thrown his wet, stinky clothes away, they’ve taken them out of the garbage and washed and folded them.
They don’t do any of this because it’s in their job descriptions. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because that’s what loving thy neighbor is about: loving all of our neighbors – not just the ones who smell good or with whom we agree.
I was thinking about this last week when “Mark’ grunted at me from the hot, concrete pad and I slipped into my air-conditioned car. When the radio came on, I heard the news about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. I’m not a lawyer or a Constitutional expert, but I disagreed with the ruling on a personal level. I also wondered how baking a cake could even became a political and legal issue in a nation where so many people define themselves as “Christians.”
But the again, I also wondered how, in a “Christian” nation, Mark’s safe place is a concrete pad behind a social service agency.
Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ – that’s where the name came from, right? And wasn’t Jesus all about breaking norms by socializing with the ostracized and caring for people who others disregarded? He never pretended it would be easy or pleasant. But he did teach us that no person is more important than any other person.
When I got back to the office after my meeting that day, Mark was gone. His belongings were out of sight, and there was no indication he’d ever been there or that he would soon be back
But I knew he would be.
Because the fact that the concrete pad behind my office is his safe place isn’t by chance. It’s because the people inside the building have created that safe place by accepting him just as he is.
You know, kind of like Jesus taught us,
I regretfully admit that I was in my forties before I truly understood one of life’s most important tenets: being right will never feel as good as being kind. That’s why I almost didn’t write this.
I don’t want to shame or embarrass anyone who has shared or posted the meme that makes me cringe every time I see it.
I know that it was posted with the best of intentions by great people with good hearts, kind souls and a desire to make the world a better place.
But a statement suggesting that big homeless shelters are somehow better than big churches is, well, just wrong on so many levels.
Let’s start with the fact that we live in America, a nation founded by people seeking a right to worship in the way they wanted. Dismissing how others choose to worship is completely un-American.
Personally, I’m not a fan of churches with memberships larger than the population of the town in which I live. But that’s why I don’t attend one.
I understand concerns that the money used to build, maintain, and equip such large churches could be better used to pay for services to the disadvantaged, but couldn’t the same be said for almost any aspect of our own lives? If we had a smaller house or a less expensive cars, all of us would be able to give more to charity.
We should all spend less time judging and more time actually helping others.
Which brings me to the other reason I hate this meme.
Are there really people who think that building more and bigger homeless shelters is the answer to our homeless problems?
To me, that statement is like waving the white flag in surrender to all of the issues that cause homelessness. We are accepting that we are helpless in the face of the root causes, such as mental illness and social injustice. We are admitting that prevention doesn’t work and that people and systems can’t change.
And I’m not willing to accept that.
I work for a social service organization that fights poverty. Yet every day, I also fight a mentality that providing financial assistance and food to the poor is all we can do to help.
In reality, that’s doing people in poverty a disservice. It’s sending a message that they are not capable of doing more or being more. It’s telling them we’ve given up on the possibility that they are capable of helping themselves and helping others.
Addressing issues of poverty is hard work. It involves developing relationships with people who are often hard to love or don’t understand the manner in which middle class people live and interact. It’s our job to walk with them, teach them, and set expectations for them.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for emergency financial, food, and housing. There is. We can’t expect anyone to make big changes in their lives when they are in the middle of a crisis.
But if that’s all we do, then we are selling them, and ourselves, short.
So instead of calling for more homeless shelters, I want to hear a rallying cry for more preventive and support services. I want a united demand for better mental health and drug treatment programs. And, most of all, I want people to stop putting the band-aid of temporary shelter on gaping, life-long wounds created in part by the inference that some people should just accept their place in life.
The boxes were big – really really big/ And there was one for my brother and one for me. They were among the first gifts to appear under our Christmas tree, and my brother and I couldn’t have been more excited.
We were ten and twelve years old that year – old enough to know that our parents were practical and extremely unlikely to splurge on anything expensive AND impractical. But we were ten and twelve years old that year – young enough to be hopeful and confident that the boxes were too big to actually hold anything practical.
We were wrong.
On Christmas morning, we both tore into the large boxes, which simply revealed what we had known in our hearts all along: our parents were extremely practical.
Inside each large box was a puffy winter coat. To us, the boxes might as well have held nothing at all. My brother and I were both devastated. Our mom had actually wrapped winter coats in beautiful packages with elaborate bows as though the gifts were incredibly special.
As an adult, I can appreciate the presents and that my parents wanted to ensure our warmth. But as a child, I felt like I had been fooled. Sometimes I feel like I’m still being fooled or, just as often, I’m fooling myself.
I still jump to conclusions based on the appearance of a box without knowing what’s inside. For example, I was recently discussing the backpack program, in which food is sent home with students who may not have enough to eat over a weekend. For some reason, the discussion turned to a specific neighborhood, and I said, “Why waste time in that neighborhood, shouldn’t they should focus on neighborhoods where children are really hungry?”
The neighborhood in question has large homes with spacious, well-manicured lawns.
“Because there are hungry children in some of those homes,” I was told. When I started to argue, I was put in my place. “Some families bought those houses in hopes that the value would grow. At the time, they didn’t have enough money to furnish them. Now, their houses are worth considerably less than they owe, and they are struggling just to make the bare minimum payment. They have no furniture and often can’t afford food. There are hungry children in side those big, empty houses.”
And I realized those houses are like pretty boxes. We think we know what is inside, but we are often wrong.
This week is Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, and I hope everyone will take some time to think about boxes: empty ones and ones we can fill up with food for hungry families. This year, our help is needed more than ever. SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits have been cut, and nonprofit organizations are receiving less support from the government than in previous years. That means our hungry and homeless are depending on community members.
Let’s fill up those empty boxes.
I’ve got a habit.
It’s a habit that’s opened my eyes to a side of my town that many people aren’t even aware of. It’s a side of our town that some people look right through – maybe because they don’t want to see it or maybe because they simply don’t know what they are looking at. It’s a side of our town that shows disparity, inequality and absurdity.
But it’s there right out in the open – in the park down the street from my neighborhood. It’s a park where I’ve spent hours and hours of my time.
My husband calls my behavior obsessive. I call it maintaining a routine. But, whatever you call it, I am compelled to take our dog Rodney for a walk in the park at least once, and sometimes twice, a day depending on the weather and how busy my schedule is.
No matter what, we always go in the morning. Always.
On weekdays this means my alarm goes off at 5:00 and we’re in the park by 5:30. On weekends, we’re generally there a bit later.
But no matter the time, those visits to the park provide a glimpse into what’s going on in my town.
This time of year, it’s still dark when I get to the park. But that doesn’t bother me. I’m walking a big German Shepherd, and anyone would be crazy to mess with him. He’s a nice dog, but he isn’t exactly a fan anything, human or otherwise, that he sees moving in the dark.
Besides, just like I have a routine, so do others.
There’s the group of joggers that come running through every other day. There’s the two middle-aged women whose exercise routine is a little less strenuous and who simply walk through the park gossiping. There are always the other dog walkers, although I don’t think they are quite as committed to the whole dog walking thing as I am because they are only there sporadically.
And on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, there’s the group of bankers, accountants, lawyers and others being barked at by an ex-Marine putting them through “boot camp.” I’m always amused by the fact that these professionals pay to have someone tell them to run the bleachers and jump rope at the crack of dawn. But, then, I guess they probably wouldn’t get out of bed for the torture if they weren’t paying for it.
And as the sun begins to rise, I also see what other people have left behind. Clean-up crews haven’t arrived yet, so there’s always quite a bit left from the previous days’ activities and events. There are sweatshirts and shoes; I don’t understand how anyone can leave the park without shoes, but it happens all the time. There are balls and toys; I imagine some of those the parents were happy to leave some of those toys behind. And worst of all, there is litter – lots and lots of litter. Bottles, cans, cups, fast food wrappers, tin foil and popped balloons often lie on picnic tables and on the ground, usually near one of the dozens of trash cans that dot the park.
And, also as the sun rises, I see a man walking through the park. I never know where he’s spent the night, but I do know it’s not in the comfort of a warm home and bed. He’s always carrying his life on his back and something to read in his hand.
Just like many of us, he has his own morning routine. He settles at his favorite table at the shelter by the creek. He takes a water bottle from his backpack and lays his reading materials out before him. He then heads to the restroom, where I assume he grooms as best he can. And then he goes back to his table and reads. He is usually there for a few hours but is always gone by mid-morning. I don’t know where he goes, although at times I have seen him walking the streets of my town during the day.
I’ve come to think of this man as an acquaintance, even though I don’t know his name or his story. But, like any other acquaintance, we always greet each other. I’ve also come to respect this man – not because he is obviously surviving any way he can, but because he’s earned my respect.
Unlike many other patrons of the park, he alway leaves his space cleaner than when he got there. If that means throwing away his trash as well as the trash of others, he does. I’ve seen him do it many, many times.
It might seem like a simple thing, but it’s not simple at all to me. In fact, it seems very complicated.
Because people who can afford to leave behind shoes and sweatshirts have more than this man… a lot more. At the same time, many people who have sufficient material possessions are quick to judge and label those who don’t as lazy. Yet, to me, someone who throws away trash is NOT lazy, and someone who leaves it behind is.
That’s a puzzle I’ll have to ponder on yet another walk through the park.