Homelessness: Loving People Without Permanent Shelter

All major religious institutions tell us in some way or another to be stewards of the Earth, stewards of each other.  For those of us who choose the path of spirituality, we do not need to be instructed that we are responsible for our brothers and sisters on the street.  Any way of helping is greatly appreciated, putting karmic stars in our crown.  Stewardship, according to Miriam Webster, is “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.”

I’m always amazed by what a pleasure it is to take food to the homeless; grateful, friendly, decent people without permanent shelter.  Often I hear people taking the perspective that they could work, ought to work, to provide themselves with shelter.  Do those people really know what they’re talking about?  Have any of those people ever known someone who’s illness made it impossible for them to work?

            I have a close friend who, although she isn’t homeless, is unable to work more than a little bit.  She was raised by an abusive alcoholic, then in her young adulthood developed severe arthritis.  Although she is only 35 years old, she can’t stand for long periods, can’t bend or squat, can’t lift heavy things, and there are times when her pain is so severe she is in bed most of the day.  Thanks to section 8, she and her 5 children have shelter and the kids have their mother with them.  She’s a wonderful mother to her children.  She’s broken the cycle of abuse, both physical and drugs/alcohol.  She doesn’t like any mind-altering substances.  What a gift she has given to all of us by raising these five wonderful kids without abuse, without drugs, and without alcohol.  They will likely become healthy contributors to society because of their available, loving mother.

            I had a client years ago, who was sometimes housed and sometimes homeless.  His longest stints of being housed have been in jail or prison.  He was both sexually and physically abused as a child.  He developed Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar type, struggling to manage it effectively.  It would be completely unrealistic to think that he could work.  He tended to struggle with inappropriate behaviors, had voices demanding he hurt himself or convincing him of paranoid ideas.  He also couldn’t keep his moods stable so he would get horribly, debilitatingly depressed.  Later he would become very manic.  During his manic episodes, he was both creative and intelligent but lacked safe boundaries so he got himself into trouble with the law.  He was not a danger to anyone but himself, however, he could not work.  He could barely take care of himself, much less maintain a residence.  Yet, he was a kind, intelligent human being.

            I have taken great pleasure in helping needy people, so that is what I did with my children yesterday.  I wish I had more time for this as it benefits everyone.  I made an enormous pot of lentil soup and we drove around feeding the homeless population of Eugene.

            First, we drove around the park on Jefferson Street.  We offered soup to people in alleys, in tents on the side of the road, and loitering around the train tracks.  One man was hobbling due to some kind of medical issue.  His hands were black and swollen, making my heartache for his situation.  He pulled out a dirty cup, “I never turn away food.  This is fine, or what about that one?  I don’t want to be greedy.”  The first dirty cup was a 12 oz coffee cup.  The second was a 32 oz soda cup.  I offered him a clean container for his soup, a clean spoon, and a napkin.  He made friendly conversation about some herbs he had found, wondering what they were.  I told him they looked like chamomile to me.  He’d thought maybe they were hops.  He was grateful, telling me the soup was delicious and thanking me repeatedly.

            Then we went to Whitebird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon, which was closed being a Saturday, but the porch, steps, and front yard were filled with hungry people.  I had a huge pot of soup with me, containers, spoons, napkins, and salt and pepper if people needed them.  All but two people were grateful for the soup.  One said, “I don’t really like lentil soup.”  Then she tasted it and said, “Oooh, but this is like gourmet!”  Many people ate and commented on how delicious the soup was, a few had seconds.  Only two didn’t eat.  One had just eaten, and the other was too mentally ill to realize she might have been hungry.  She was the only one out of the whole bunch who made me slightly uncomfortable, yet the whole time I was there, her worst behavior was to throw sand like a toddler.  One man told me the food was so good, he wanted to help me make it repeatedly.  He wanted the recipe.  He wondered if I might start cooking for the Burrito Brigade.  Overall, the message I got was thanks, we appreciate you cooking for us.  Many told me that directly.  One young woman said, sadly, “you wouldn’t believe how much malnutrition there is out here.  It’s hard to get a good meal.”  I wished I had time to cook for them every day.

            Writing this, reminded me of my concern for their health, particularly the man with the black, disabled fingers.  I gathered up some pesto pasta, some nut mix, a clean, hot soapy rag, some healing salve, and went back down to meet him.  He shared with me the story about his hand.  “I stopped someone trying to knife someone and it cut my hand.  Later I had to get part of my thumb amputated.  I don’t think they did a very good job.”  His wish?  A flashlight after food and water.  I brought him food, an emergencee package, some nut mix, and the washrag.  He dipped his thumb in my salve, encouraging me to call cahoots for him.  When I spoke to the police (the gatekeepers for cahoots), they said, “oh, yeah, I know who that is.  He usually calls for himself.  Maybe we can get him hospitalized.”  I hope so.  I think he could use some good medical care.

            The spiritual blessing here is that there is kindness and love everywhere.  It may surprise you to discover that there is a lot of love on the streets.  People without permanent shelter have just as much love in their hearts as the rest of us.  Sometimes, they’ve been shattered enough that it cracks open the shell many of us carry around our hearts, leaving them raw and available to share their love with all.

            Blessings to all of you who help the homeless in any way.  Spread the love!!