It is difficult, maybe impossible, to understand what it means to be homeless unless you have experienced it first-hand. For those of us who have been raised, and have lived, for the most part, without real want or need, the world looks very different than it does to one living on the streets, exposed not only to the elements, but also to humiliation, frustration and despair. Living without a structure to call home is fraught with dangers, extreme difficulties, and a host of mental and emotional pressures which can slowly weaken and undermine even the strongest of people.
For myself, who have had the pleasure and good fortune to have lived under a roof for the vast majority of my life, it is easy to forget the daily realities of living without this essential necessity; yet for several periods earlier in my life, I did live without a roof over my head, which gave me direct insight into this harsh reality.
Nevertheless, these memories can remain latent until something, or someone, stimulates them and brings them to mind. Recently, I’ve met a young couple who have been living out of their car, just like I once did. They have been trying desperately to discover and create a stability that is, at best, fleeting, and at worst, completely beyond reach; and they are fighting a difficult, daily battle to survive in a world that is predominantly indifferent to their plight, often antagonistic to them, and in some cases openly hostile. Too often the thin veneer of civility collapses around the world of those in need, and they discover, much to their dismay and terror, that there is little safety, or security, to be found in this world.
I had the opportunity just the other day of having lunch with this couple, hoping to afford them this small luxury, at least. While sitting at the restaurant table we discussed some of their daily challenges, and I was struck by something the young man said, which I could instantly identify with, recalling my own similar experiences. In essence, he said that he feared losing his mind, of seeing his mental faculties slip away due to the ceaseless stresses and anxieties of living without a home; he fears becoming the crazy guy on the corner talking to himself and staring off into space, lost in his own world, trying to escape the misery he encounters in nearly every direction one turns. He went on to say that this possibility seems very real and possible to them because it is so overwhelmingly tiring living this way day after day—and it is terrifying—and mostly he tries not to think about it, not to think about this possibility, or to think about the frustration and hopelessness they feel, and certainly not to think or believe that this is really what the world is—that he can’t allow himself to believe that this is the way the world is, he doesn’t want to believe it.
Even as I sat listening, I didn’t want to believe life was this bad for them; from my comfortable position as a homeowner, I found it hard to grasp the reality they described, and for a moment I wanted to pretend it wasn’t so bad, to turn away, to forget, but I knew what he said to be true. I remember feeling exactly that way, sensing at times that I was losing my mind while living in constant fear, with no place to sleep that was my own, and nowhere to spend the day that I could consider safe. Every moment of every day, and every night was spent on alert, looking this way and that in hopes that nobody would tell you to leave, that you can’t park here, or you can’t stay here, that this is private property and you are trespassing, that you’re loitering, or we’re closing and you have to leave now; I remember spending hours each day trying to figure out where I could sleep that night, since the place I slept last night was now being patrolled by police, or someone else found that place to sleep and it was no longer safe.
They described how this searching for a place to call their own—even for just an hour, or a night—that this constant searching all day for a place to park for a few hours left them little time to work out how to get a job, or to keep a job, little time to plan how to earn the real money one needs for a room or an apartment, and little time or energy left for the myriad of other necessary things such as getting a postal address needed for job applications, time to make relationships needed for good references, or just the sleep and energy needed to simply live in a normal way.
As we talked I remembered how different the world had looked from this vantage point—from a life without a home—it was as if I was always on the outside looking in, and not really belonging to this world. Everyone seemed to have a home, or a place to call their own, except me, and even though I had a strong mental and emotional inner stability, this feeling of not belonging anywhere began to weaken me, and I began to doubt myself, wondering what was wrong with me, why I couldn’t, even with all of my skills and abilities, why I couldn’t thrive, why was I becoming a stranger in this world? I didn’t belong in any store because I didn’t have money to be a consumer, I didn’t belong in any house that I passed because I didn’t have money to own or rent, I didn’t belong in the park because I was a loiterer, restaurants weren’t for me, theaters weren’t for me, everything was out of reach.
Some people want to be homeless, and for those people they have made their peace with many of these realities, and after weighing the pros and cons of such a life, have chosen it over the alternatives. This couple, however, in no way want to be homeless, and they want a home as soon as they possibly can get one, to leave this ceaseless wandering behind them. I can see this in their eyes, I know the difference between the types of homeless—between the ones that have made their peace with life on the street, and those who have not, and will not—God help them.
They are, at times, desperate in the face of the challenges impeding this goal, the countless things which seem nearly insurmountable. But they are strong, and resilient, and determined, and also they are smart. They each tell me, at different times, that they aren’t giving up until they get a stable place to live, and I can see a fierce determination in them. But also a vulnerability, frustration and traces of despair, because, after all, they are merely human, like we all are, and can only take so much. Regardless of how strong and talented we are, all of us have a breaking point.
We are so much alike, I think to myself, as I look at the couple across the table, but with one clear and vital difference. When I had spent my time on the street, I always had a wonderful family I knew I could trust to fall back on, and in particular, a generous and loving mother who I could depend on for everything if, and when, that life became too difficult. And so it was for me, when I had had enough of that life I simply went home again, and hardly missed a beat. I rebuilt my life and quickly enjoyed all of the benefits once again of those who “belong” in this world.
But this couple doesn’t have a loving mother, or father or a family that cares for them. They have each other, and while this is a great deal, it isn’t enough. They need someone to help them. We all need someone to help us. We’ve all had someone to help us; and that is likely the only reason we have a home, and the blessings we enjoy, and are not living in dire straits.
How could I turn my back on this couple? How could I just try to forget they exist; to look the other way and pretend they don’t exist? Or how could I argue that their problems are their own fault, merely in order to absolve my conscience of any responsibility for them.
They aren’t my flesh and blood but they are my family. We all need each other; those who have the things of this world need those who don’t have these things, because only in service to those who need us, do we grow outside of our selfishness and arrogance, and only by transcending our selfishness can we discover the joy and peace that comes of giving ourselves, risking our security in order to make this world the kind of world that we all want to believe in.