Being homeless doesn’t mean you stand out in a crowd. There is no blinking arrow over your head, proclaiming “BUM” or anything else. Chances are, if you’re not toting a black garbage bag full of your meagers, no one will ever notice you, and even if you are noticed, it’s fleeting, very fleeting.
People notice us from the safety of distance or the safety of locked vehicles. When we meet on the street, eyes are looking somewhere else, always. I don’t know what people expect a homeless man or woman to do if someone should happen to look right at them and maybe say hello and smile. One thing is sure, though. We won’t attack. Would it make people feel any better to know that homeless people are just like they are, except for this one little difference?
Before I was homeless, I was many things and most of them were respected and respectful. I was known as a kind man who suffered occasional bouts of hilarity and silliness, but those were accepted personality quirks, not at all harmful. I was a hard-working and good dad, and people knew I loved my boys with an intense and personal passion. I was normal.
I became homeless because of things that I did, unhealthy things that I have since removed from my life, as a snake removes its skin as it grows. As I shed this bad habit, then that one, I was taking steps toward losing the homeless tag, but I didn’t know it. I was working harder than I’d ever worked, confronting some basic truths about myself that I had either denied or hid.
I stayed in homeless shelters and eventually I worked in one, for almost 12 years. It’s not possible to live and work in a homeless shelter without becoming aware that everyone around you is part of a mirror that you’d probably rather not look at. If you decide to judge a man because of what he’s done or what he’s doing, the man you judge had damn well better be you.
If you decide to judge another man, the next time you turn around that mirror is going to be there but you’re not going to recognize the eyes that are watching you. The people you’re judging are looking for a sign of friendship and a hint of understanding. If what they see is more of the usual, more judgment from people who have no understanding of life without a home, then you’ve lost them before you can chirp your first hollow greeting.
Being homeless doesn’t always mean being stupid. It always means being homeless and that’s all it will ever mean. The first time someone referred to me as “homeless”, I was mortified and I began a detailed inventory of those things that make all of us human. I found them, too, every damn one of them, and at the same time I found that those human traits had been pushed away into a dark corner, shielded from a generous sun by that one single word.
I didn’t like it. I fought it, but I had to learn some things first. When I started my slide into homelessness, I didn’t know it and I didn’t sense anything happening to me. It was a gradual slide down a very smooth track, with no interruptions and no one telling me to watch out. It was the easiest thing I’d ever done. So, when I decided I no longer cared to be homeless, I didn’t know how to climb out of that awful place. It had been so easy getting there. Why was it so hard getting out?
If you want to break out of that homeless prison, you better start by judging yourself, and you better find a new stash of kindness before you do it. When you reach the point of being able to show kindness toward yourself, then you’ll be able to identify kindness when others offer it to you. Accept it, both from yourself and from others. Expect it and know you deserve it, but be kind to yourself first. If you can’t be, others won’t be.
Being homeless doesn’t have to be a life sentence, but it’s going to take kindness and hard work to get out of that particular predicament. Start with the kindness and move toward the hard work. I promise that you’ll find the work is a lot easier than finding the kindness, but once you have it and once you apply it to yourself, you’re just about done. The work gets easier, your life gets easier, things make some sense for a change. Be kind. It’ll change everything.