This time of year marks the beginning of the approaching holiday season. In general, people tend to be a little more generous during this time of year...usually. I know that the economic downturn, however, has made it stressful on many of us. It seems that the bills are always there, no matter what. And then life throws us a few curveballs along the way: the car breaks down (we know what that's about!), you've got to take an unexpected trip, medical expenses, etc. It's easy for us to get stressed out about finances. And then the Christmas season is just around the corner and with it comes the gift giving madness...you know how that goes.
As difficult as it does seem to get at times though, it's not as bad as it could be. We still have a roof over our heads, food in the fridge, clothing on our backs, and a bed to sleep in at night. At least most of us do. And this week, I wanted to talk about the part of our population that doesn't have these blessings. The homeless population.
If you've been following my blog or listening to my podcast, you know that I am involved in our In His Shoes homeless outreach. I am in tune to this vulnerable population...not only because I work downtown, but because I was brought up with parents that cared about them as well. For the past 6 years, we have been providing meals and clothing to the homeless population on L.A's streets in the skid row area on a monthly basis. And recently we have partnered with Glendale's homeless shelter and we are now providing homecooked meals to the residents there. This gives us the opportunity to not only have fun cooking for them and watching them enjoy our efforts, but it also gives us a chance to sit down with them, talk to them, and to understand that they are no different than we are....except that we have support systems, and they don't.
Today, though, I wanted to write about those that don't even have the four walls of the shelter to keep them warm and dry. I write about those that are living on the streets because I want to share some things that I've witnessed over these past weeks, months....years. Especially as it deals with dignity.
I witnessed something this past Monday morning that is still pulling at my heart today, nearly a week later. I take the bus into downtown L.A. And as I got off at my stop, there was a group of us standing at the signal waiting for it to turn green. I noticed a woman about 20 feet away. She looked poor, though I can't really tell you she was homeless. I could tell she had tried very hard to put herself together. She wore pants and a shirt. They were clean but very worn. Her hair was combed to the side, her shoes had holes. I could tell she was thinking about something. I understood from her posture and from working with the homeless that she was trying to get the courage to ask for help. She came closer. Right next to me was a beautiful woman, dressed to the "t". Shoes, clothes, make up, matching bag, jewelry were all perfect and her hair was layered and flat ironed. She was very well put together. The poor woman approached her. I heard her start the conversation which went something like this: "Ma'am, good morning. I love how you have your hair. The way it's layered. It looks so lovely on you....." Okay, now if someone said this to you, would you not have the courtesy to say, "Thank you"? I was really taken aback when the pretty woman stopped this woman in mid-sentence, held out her hand like a policeman stopping traffic and said, "Stop! If you're going to ask me for money, I don't have any!" If you could see the poor woman's expression of horror when she was confronted this way. I heard her mumble something about needing only 35 cents...and then the poor woman apologized. I was so sickened, and saddened by this. I wanted to follow her as she walked off and give her money, buy her food....but I couldn't because at that moment that's not what she needed. she had lost her dignity. I know how mortified she felt at the rich woman's response. She had mustered up all the courage she had to approach this woman in the first place, and then to be rejected so terribly. I couldn't make it worse by showing her that I had heard the whole thing. I watched her gather herself together and walk away.
You've heard me talk about my homeless friend Bob. I learned a long time ago to allow him to give back to me as well Over the course of the 5 or so years that I have had the pleasure of knowing him, he has given me so much: a penny with a hole stamped in it; a box with an Alaskan fish painted on it; a bag of nuts; a piece of candy; a white chocolate egg....and most importantly his wonderful friendship. When he first offered to share some candy with me, I thanked him and refused. But I noticed how that made him feel. When you're homeless, people avoid you. It's a given that you're going to ask for help. You already feel invisible as people avoid you, walk around you, don't acknowledge your presence. The simple act of talking to someone, and sharing something you own with them, makes you feel like you too have something to share. Like you too can contribute to the friendship. One of the things that Bob likes most, more than donations or food or money, is when people stop and talk to him. If you call him by name, he's your friend for life. And so I accept Bob's gifts of friendship. And I cherish them. Because here is someone who has so little. Everything he owns is packed onto his wheelchair...yet he has so much, that he wants to share it with me. I am touched by his friendship. Bob has got dignity!
A few years ago, I witnessed this dignity in a homeless man on one of our Skid Row outreaches.
We had pulled up to our first stop on 4th Street and San Pedro. There was a small encampment of people living in boxes (if they were lucky to have a box) or on the sidewalk. It was a cold Fall night, and a man came up and asked if I would have a pair of shoes for him. He said that he had shoes, and if we didn't have any, that was fine. But he thought he'd ask. The sidewalk had puddles from the rain that day, and the man's shoes were canvas and looked a bit damp. I dug around and found a pair of leather high top shoes. I held them up and asked if he could use them. He looked at them. He smiled. He said they looked great. He hoped they fit. He said he wouldn't take them if they didn't fit. And he took the pair of socks I offered him and set about to try them on. While he was trying them, I asked if he could use some soup, an emergency blanket? A rain poncho? "I'm good," he said. "I have everything I need, but thank you."