I always tried to pay attention to Albert Einstein’s sarcastic comment, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand!”
For years I’ve heard people sneer at those of us who do social justice work saying that is precisely what we do – ignore the people. Then they add (as if they were experts) that if we really knew the people for whom we advocated, we’d hate them. The final kicker is, if we’re working to find solutions to homelessness, the opposition will snarl, “So how many drifters have you taken into your house?”
Well, now I can answer that last question: twenty-two. Plus three dogs and one cat. Oh yes, a toad that lives in an aquarium. Some stayed inside temporarily, some lived on either the front porch (the police asked us not to do that) or in the backyard in a sheltered gazebo or the garage. Others came to dinner for the holidays and still others come over to visit and share food.
Do I like all of them? Yes, actually, I do. Even Speedy. Speedy is pretty hapless because he has no idea how to be polite. I’ve given up doing much more than feeding him because the biggest success I’ve had in five years is to make him stop saying, “Yo! Mama!” when he sees me. That’s all I’ll ever get from him. It’s enough.
We are not called to like everyone who deserves help. I freely admit I do judge some actions more than others. I don’t interact with people who hold arguments with other people I can’t see. I don’t tolerate drug use at my home ever, and I do push sobriety where I can.
My one demand is that, over a period of time, they get signed up for the programs we have, as advocates, fought tooth and nail to obtain for them – food stamps, health care, basic minimal income. If I’m giving out money, they need to make that effort so I can give out less. I agree with folksy, progressive radio commentator, Jim Hightower: “Money’s like manure, he said. “You gotta spread it around.” When people have basic benefits, my own fertilizer goes further.
This all started with a very simple act – I let homeless people use our address for their mail. This is life altering for them since with an address for their mail they know when they have to update their records, know they have benefits at all, and prevent loss as reporting changes occur. We get our own first class mail at a PO Box anyway, but it was such a simple thing and has made an enormous difference for all those people.
Having protection from the vagaries of both homelessness and being out of touch has made a difference. A lot of them are Vietnam vets, have worked, and are too old to find employment anymore. A few have disability income finally, one is on Social Security, and others have applied. The cat lived on a harness and leash for two years to keep him safe, and now he and his owner have their own small apartment because they regularized their social service contacts via our address. We are thrilled for them both. Others have gone home to family, and still others have VA or HUD housing. All of this happened because they had an address.
I come by this outreach honorably. During the Depression years, my grandmother fed “hoboes and bums” in the backyard in exchange for some work. At some point one of them carved a simple figure on the gate – a curled up cat – telling other such men that “a kind-hearted woman lives here.” Well I don’t have the sign, but everyone knows who we are, including the police who look away because our corner of the universe is calm, peaceful, and clean. Our neighbors love the men living in the backyard and hire them for weekly clean up and small jobs.
I can walk my extended neighborhood and see people I don’t know who know who I am. When I had a medical crisis (that turned out to be nothing but was temporarily very painful) I was surrounded by care from everyone we’d helped. We are a community. I consider them my friends. I’m afraid of no one because no one would let anything happen to me.
Obviously what helps this along is that there is a public bathroom a block away that is open 24/7. I don’t think I have a solution for that where such things don’t exist. But I’d probably rent a porta-potty or buy a compost toilet – it’s really not too much to do.
But if I did nothing more than make sandwiches and hot soup or cold drinks depending on the weather, just sharing our front porch mailbox would, to them, have been enough. We morphed into the living situations. It’s not for everyone, but it works for us. There are, however, totally possible solutions we can offer.
How life changing would it be if churches put up cubbies with numbers that become “apartments” in the public records to give homeless people an address they can access during business hours? They would keep their social services, have a contact if they got ill, and otherwise just make stability in a small way where otherwise the system rolls over those who are already just barely scraping by?
How hard is it to put out a water station and plastic cups (plus a waste basked) in the heat of summer days? How hard is it to have “cup o’ noodles” and insulated cups for cold weather?
Homeless people give back. Recently an entire field got cleaned up because a friend who leaves home baked goodies for the people who camp there got harmed. She does cat rescue work, leaves food bins to make it easier, and those bins got stolen. She got REALLY mad and took them back forcefully from the new homeless man who’d taken them. The other homeless people who saw what happened rallied around, drove the thief away, and then cleaned up every inch of the mess he (mostly) had made. She was amazed. I told her – they did this for you. They know what good you do for animals and for them, and they wouldn’t tolerate the decay of their fragile community stability that teeters on the kindnesses you show them.
I am adamant no one needs to repay me, but they DO have to “pay if forward” to others in harm’s way. They do that – I’ve seen it repeatedly. But they also bring me presents. I have a gorgeous scarf one gave me, bracelets, a bird feeder- things they found, nice things they salvaged – to say thanks. I treasure them. And no – these things aren’t stolen. You’d be appalled at what people throw away. The homeless are masters of finding and salvaging what others merely toss.
They are smart, funny, kind, and engaging. Yes, some have mental health issues, now with Medi-Cal largely under control. Some have records, freely disclosed and, from me, not judged. They work hard both at keeping body and soul together and keeping our neighborhood clean and crime free. Being poor is the hardest work there is, and they put their shoulders to the wheel, day after day.
Arrests for illegal camping are almost non-existent in our area because if they are rousted, they can temporarily leave their things in the backyard while they move their sites. Nothing is more stupid than the ‘cat and mouse’ ticketing of homeless for sleeping outside and making them move their stuff, then ticketing them if they can’t. Then comes the warrants for their failure to appear (they have no transportation to court or work details), then jailing them for 3 days only to have the cycle repeat. Just giving them a place to store things while they relocate has cut down on the cycle and let them get legally placed.
One woman a block over – I dislike her far too much to consider her a neighbor – hates the homeless. She has made as many as 52 calls in one night to the police claiming one man – ONE – was doing terrible things in the alley by her house. These are all lies. Why isn’t she cited for false police reports? She’s a homeowner. That’s why. When my homeless friend asked her why she was so angry with him (he had permission to sleep several houses down from her) she said, “Because I’m a CHRISTIAN!”
Seriously. She said that.
She has called the police on us, to no avail, for giving access to our own property. She has filed complaints that we are messy and lowering property values (thanks to the homeless men, our house is lovely – neat, trimmed, clean, raked.) So her brand of “Christianity” does not prevail, thank goodness. I see her peeking down my driveway from time to time, so I recently put a sign in the front window, “Matthew 25:40 Lives Here.” For some reason she hasn’t been by since. Wonder why…
“As ye have done to the least of these…” That is the crux of what faith teaches me. No rules, no ritual, no rites will matter so much as that one directive. Walking the walk on whatever level you can is all we are asked to do. It’s amazingly simple to find a way to be kind. And guess what? You get back friends. Who knew?