Those Who Are Homeless
I have had many experiences with homeless people. As I share some of them with you, I ask you to reflect on your experiences with people who are homeless.
I was one of the initiators of a homeless emergency shelter program in Cedar Rapids called Family Promise. I felt this was a vital program; it provides shelter for three intact families—meaning the father and male teenagers could join the rest of the family in the shelter, which is not the case in most homeless shelters—these three families would stay within church buildings at night and a day shelter during the day, if they were not at work or in school. However, it wasn’t until I actually spent time with one homeless family in this program that I came to understand how being homeless profoundly affects a person. I mean I knew from what I had read and what others had said to me, but my friends that is very different from actually spending time with someone who is homeless. I brought a meal to a mother, her preteen daughter, and 6 year old son. As we ate she talked about how she had a job but did not make enough money to buy a vehicle or rent an apartment. She was trying to get a better job, and had hopes of leaving the Family Promise program very soon. Her daughter was very quiet as we ate together, and after the meal found a corner in the church building to sit and read. Her son was a ball of energy. He wanted to play and had no-one to play with. So I spent an hour or so throwing a ball around a large community room with him. He seemed to really have a great time. But having so much energy was taxing on his mother, who at times, demonstrated an abruptness with her son that showed the pervasive exhaustion that being homeless can cause. I understood on a visceral level how this young woman craved someone to affirm her worth and dignity. As she first entered the room for dinner, her depression weighed so heavily on her shoulders that she walked hunched over and her eyes were downcast. After some time in conversation, with me, though it could have been anyone who would listen to her, her eyes brightened, her body seemed to gain some strength, and she eventually relaxed enough to lean against the table as we talked as if we had known each other for years.
A number of years ago, I was attending a workshop in Chicago at Meadville Lombard. Each day, I would walk from the hotel to the divinity school. As I walked those several blocks I passed by many homeless people, or perhaps I should say they were destitute, begging for money on the street. Every day I would pass them by, not making eye contact for fear of them harassing me for money. On the last night of the workshop a group of us ministers went out to eat together. We walked from the school to a nearby fast food Indian restaurant. As we entered the restaurant, an elderly black man tried to engage us in conversation, asking if we could give him some money for some coffee. His speech was garbled and some of the words he used seemed disjoined, perhaps schizophrenic. Most of us walked by, trying to ignore him, but one of my colleagues, Reverend Dennis Hamilton, put his arm around the shoulder of this man and asked him to join us for some food. Dennis offered to buy him dinner and encouraged him to tell his story. The rest of us were amazed at this. But we said nothing. Dennis spent much of the meal listening to this man’s story, disjointed as it was. At the end of the meal the man thanked Dennis and walked away seeming a little happier, less anxious than he had been before talking with Dennis. I asked Dennis why he had done this. He said that he felt called to reach out to this man; he could tell this man needed companionship and affirmation of his worth and dignity. Dennis said he often reached out to homeless people, not always giving them money or buying them a meal, but he tried to at least treat them as a human being, saying “Hi” to them, actually looking at them, making eye contact with them, wishing them well, and at times, talking with them—listening to their story and offering them a bit of companionship. He said it often didn’t take much time; time and an ear to listen was something he could offer.
Today, you heard a story of a child engaging with a woman who lived in a box. And I just shared a couple of experiences that I have had with homeless people. And I wonder what stories you have from your work with the Bridge and with PADS—these organizations that help the homeless. And something crosses my mind, I wonder how you feel when you are walking in downtown Chicago and are approached by a homeless or destitute person asking for money. Do you think of them as a “panhandler,” or a “trickster;” someone who has set up shop in order to manipulate you into giving them money. You might fear that if you make eye contact that they will more aggressively beg you. Do you think they are going to use the money for drugs or alcohol and that giving anything to them will just contribute to their addiction? I wonder how you felt as you listened to the video of the people who did not even see their loved ones/relatives when they were sitting in the street dressed like a homeless person.
I poke you with these experiences because I want you to think and intentionally decide how you will engage with people in need. I know many of you have made decisions to help those in need. You volunteer, you give your resources, and you, as a congregation, decided to help a woman and her children who are in need through Bridge Communities. You intend to help her until her life has stabilized and she can support herself and her family again. I am not here to ask you to do more, but to consider what you bring to someone one in need when you spend time with them. I know many people who are in need of some resources to get their lives back on stable footing. And I would encourage you to give when you are able. But more than that, I encourage you to spend time with people who are in need/homeless/destitute. What I believe they need is to be treated as a human of worth and dignity. Reverend Dennis Hamilton taught me this. Perhaps many of you have experienced this. I know it is a risk and takes some time. It is worth more than you can image to give the gift of time to someone who feels they have no worth, no dignity, who feels invisible, who feels that any interaction with one of us—a person who has a home and an stable income-- is somehow an imposition on us.
Patricia Hemminger wrote this: “Why do I not feel the lives of others, understand their aliveness, uniqueness? Hearing your breathing now, those close to me, shoes on the creaking floor...Our wish to be real, to see clearly, connects us. This warm room where we sit, full of tangible life, helps us, a space inhabited by reality; witness to hot cinnamon rolls and intimate confessions, steadfast in its support of our wish to become truly ourselves.” “hot cinnamon rolls and intimate confessions” are easy to envision here in this safe church family. If you would indulge me for a moment and close your eyes. Imagine you are in this church, feeling safe, enjoying hot cinnamon rolls and intimate conversations with people you know. Keep your eyes closed, and notice a person near you that you don’t know, and yet you still feel that safe feeling, the willingness to reach out to them to break bread and share some of your life journey with them. Now imagine that a person sitting next to you is broken, shattered, mentally ill, traumatized, destitute, homeless. Imagine that they may not be all that comfortable to be next to; he/she might be socially awkward, emotionally reactive, persistent, perhaps even mildly psychotic. You do not have to be abused by him/her, but also do not ignore him/her. Be aware of your discomfort, perhaps even fear. Perhaps you begin to understand why it is so important to listen to them, how your attention and listening gives them a gift of worth and dignity, of feeling part of humanity again. Perhaps you will begin to understand and even accept that you could easily be in their shoes; you too could be shattered by life. You can open your eyes.
In the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, it is written:
“There are three kinds of persons existing in the world: one is like drought, one who rains locally, and one who pours down everywhere.
How is a person like a drought? He gives nothing to all alike, not giving food and drink, clothing and vehicle, flowers, … bed, lodging and light, neither to recluses nor Brahmins, nor to needy beggars. In this way, a person is like a drought.
How is a person like a local rainfall? He is a giver to some, but to others he gives not … In this way, a person is like a local rainfall.
How does a person rain down everywhere? He gives to all, be they recluses or Brahmins or needy beggars; he is a giver of food and drink, clothing … lodging and lights. In this way a person rains down everywhere.”
My friends, I do not believe any of you are like droughts. As you imagined yourselves interacting with someone destitute, poor, broken, you may have realized that it can be uncomfortable to be like one who pours down everywhere. To do so takes intention, time, and a willingness to open your heart and mind to someone who is in very different circumstance than you. But if you can offer a little rain to a person who is without—without money, a home, security, self-worth-- you offer them something priceless, hope and dignity. And that, to me, is worth more than money can ever offer.