I am sitting in my little downtown coffee shop right now. To my right are two people, an older man and a younger woman talking about candidates they are looking at for a job with their company. Behind me are two middle age women who have either just finished a walk or run and are sharing a cup of coffee together. Beside me is some kind of non-profit group talking about a fund-raiser they are planning in the Fall. And in front of me is a homeless woman stretched out in a lounger playing with her phone and talking loudly to herself.
I have seen her in here many times before, it’s what I like about this coffee shop. The kid that runs it is a caring and compassionate man. How do I know that? I can see it in his face. I can hear it in his voice and I see it in his actions. She can come in here, get out of the elements for a little while, buy a small coffee for a dollar, use the free Wi-Fi and no one will bother her. In the Starbucks across the street she would stick out like a sore thumb but in this coffee shop, sitting in the corner, talking non-sense to herself she is just part of the scenery.
What I find most interesting about this lady is not the lady herself though she is a very colorful sight in her distinctive dark green dress, light-colored slacks, bright, white tennis shoes and a threadbare green scarf wrapped around her head. No, what I like to watch is how the rest of the world reacts to her.
In working with and interacting with the homeless over the last few years I am amazed at how uncomfortable they make some people. It’s as if they have some contagious disease that made them homeless that we can all catch and become homeless ourselves. They don’t and we can’t. People are homeless for a variety of reasons, mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, bad luck or a combination of all of the above. Maybe the thing that scares “normal” people is this, homelessness doesn’t discriminate and they know that.
I am working on a project that would create permanent, supportive housing in a section of my community where the need is great but is currently being filled by unsafe old motels. I am in the “trying to get funding stage” to get this project off the ground talking with politicians and business leaders about the need for a facility such as this. I begin my “pitch” the same way with each one of them, I hold two fingers one inch apart and say that’s how far each of us are away from being homeless, one huge medical bill, one serve back injury, one bad decision, one neuron in our brain going haywire. Sure most of us think we would have a safety net to catch us and hopefully you would but I have heard the stories of how those nets simply couldn’t support the weight and people, people who never in their widest dreams thought it could happen to them, found themselves living under a bridge simply trying to survive.
I would never ask anyone to do something that would make them feel uncomfortable or cause them to fear for their own safety but I will ask each of you to do this, don’t judge someone based on their perceived lot in life. Don’t judge them because of the color of their skin, their appearance or even their smell. There are people in this world that need our help, that need a hand up rather than a push down. People who took a wrong turn and simply can’t find their way back to the path. When we push people out of our society, when we cross the street when we see them heading towards us, or sit in a different section of a coffee shop because they are sitting alone talking to themselves we isolate them and isolation doesn’t help, it hurts them more.
I am not asking you to hug every homeless person you meet but you can say hello. You can acknowledge that they are human beings. And if you have the courage, security, and ability to help them you can do that too. Our communities shouldn’t just contain people who look like we do, pray like we do, or vote like we do. That isn’t a community, it is an island and we already have enough of those.