10 December 2011

Imagine Being Invisible

Imagine what it would be like to be invisible. You would sit quietly, or not so quietly, and people would walk by not acknowledging your presence. And then what about when you spoke to them. Obviously, they would hear you, but they would ignore you...and pretend that they hadn't heard you.
This is what life is like for most of our homeless population on the streets of Los Angeles. Our monthly outreach to the Skid Row area of L.A., with our group, In His Shoes, has shed a different perspective for me on the population on the streets. With the economic downturn, there are more and more people on the street. Not just men, but women...families. I often think that we are all just a paycheck away from the street if it weren't for our support systems, be they family, friends, church.
Not all who are living on the street are "crazy", "mental patients", or "social deviants." I have met many types. For the four years that we have been doing our monthly outreach in Los Angeles, I have met the "regulars" as well as those who are in transition. From what I see, there are 4 different types on the street.
  1. There are those that live there and LIKE living there. They are usually men in their 30's and 40's who thrive on the environment, seeing their friends on a day-to-day basis. They may be living in Single Room Occupancy apartments with very low rent, but hardly have enough for food.
  2. The mentally challenged. There are those that have mental issues, or that have drug-related problems and they cannot function in a "normal" society
  3. The newly homeless. This includes those that have newly lost everything, their jobs and homes. They are the ones that are trying hard to get off the streets, trying to make the best of the programs that are out there. But the programs are so impacted that they may or may not get the help that they need.
  4. Those that are living in the shelters but don't have the ability to provide for themselves and therefore end up begging for food and clothing on the street.
I suppose what sparked this writing is a conversation that I had recently with Bob, one of my homeless friends. I see Bob on a daily basis as I walk to my car on Figueroa. Bob is disabled, in a wheelchair with one leg only. He is the kindest, gentlest and most positive soul. As passersby walk to their destinations, Bob sits there, her cup for donations on the sidewalk. He does not beg, but the cup is there. Instead he greets people, compliments them on their clothing, discusses the sporting events that happened, yet as I approach I notice that there are not many that even make eye contact with Bob. And I started wondering what that would feel like, to be a "non-person." I imagine it would disheartening, if not incredibly lonely.
A couple months ago, I noticed that Bob was wearing glasses. I asked him about it. "A couple months ago, some people took me to Costco to get my eyes checked. They ordered glasses for me, but I wasn't able to go there to pick them up." They picked them up for me and now I can see. I asked him, 'So now that you can see all of us, tell me, are we as beautiful and handsome as you always tell us we are? I mean, now that you can see." He laughed and said, "Everyone is beautiful. I love Los Angeles. I'm blesed to be here."
A couple months ago, I overheard Bob tell someone that his birthday was coming up. When I asked him, he told me his birthday was on December 7 - Pearl Harbor Day. He was going to be 53. As the weeks went by, Bob referenced his upcoming birthday a few times to me. I told him that I had the date in mind - December 7. Bob's birthday was two days ago. As I wished him happy birthday on my way to the car, and handed him a bad with his birthday gift (a pack of underwear that he had asked for), he said something to me that I will not forget. I wanted to share it with you.
After thanking me for the gift, he said, "You always remember my name. And I appreciate that, ma'am. You know who I am." I can't forget this. Our homeless brothers and sisters are people, just like you and I. They are the children of fathers and mothers. They are the brothers and sisters of families. Those families may or may not know where they are, or care about them. But this doesn't discount the fact that they are human beings with needs, fears, hopes and dreams like all of us. They just lack the support systems that we so readily enjoy. They have names and birthdays.
Happy Birthday to Bob. May your life be filled with the beauty and goodness that you so readily see in all of us.
Here's what you can donate to the homeless in your community
It's often difficult to know what to give to the homeless. I hear people tell me they don't want to give money because they fear the person will use it for alcohol or drugs. That may or may not be the case, however, if you would prefer to give items to the homeless in your community, here are some suggestions that I find are asked for on a regular basis on our homeless outreach.
  • Socks
  • Blankets/Sleeping Bags
  • Toiletries (the little bottles from hotels are a great size for the homeless)
  • Towels
  • Sweatshirts, Sweatpants or Jeans
  • Shoes

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