I still see her in my mind’s eye. Sitting on a corner, under a coat and a couple of thin blankets. Rocking back and forth, maybe to warm up a little more, holding her sign. It was freezing outside and I had nothing to give.
So I walked by. And my heart aches every time I think of her.
I tell you this because I was recently reminded that as allergy parents, we know firsthand what it means to give voice to those who have no voice, and to defend the defenseless. There are so many in this world who desperately need to be given a voice: the trafficked, the disadvantaged, and the homeless, among so many others. So this is simply the story of my eyes being opened to those who literally have nothing.
The first time the reality of homelessness made its way to me was as a newlywed. Adam had just started a job in Seattle’s U District, where he encountered homeless people every day.
Through the course of his time in the U District, I heard about the homeless people he would run into on his way to grab a cup of coffee or a quick lunch. Soon the stories turned into anecdotes of what he and his co-workers did for those in need that day. Eventually, they “adopted” a guy, Darrell, whom they saw nearly every day. They bought him coffee and looked for ways to help him keep warm on the cold, damp days that happen so often in that area. And they talked with him, getting to know his story.
This simple experience was a life-changer for us.
Up till this particular moment in life, I was pretty well a boot-strappin’ kinda gal. It was hard for me to truly understand how someone could end up homeless, and how hard it was, once homeless, to break that cycle of hopelessness and poverty. And I definitely wasn’t prepared to fully grasp how being homeless and regularly looked past by the rest of us can completely devalue a person.
Since then, we’ve made it a point to try to acknowledge those on the streets, whether or not we are able to help them physically or financially. Here’s what I desperately wish I had learned closer to my teens than my forties: every one of these people are real people with a story, just like me.
Most people wind up on the streets not of their own desire, but because of circumstances beyond their control, or sometimes, poor choices that led to something that spiraled downward. For instance, Tommy, a kind gentleman our family “adopted” for a while was hard up. The streets had not been kind to him (I’m not sure if we should count how many teeth were missing, or how many he had left). But he had a story, and Adam got to know him. Knowing him led to us learning how we could help him. So, it became a relationship which birthed a desire to help in a more concrete way rather than a quick, “here’s a dollar, I’ll have done my good deed for the day and now I’ll hurry on my way” kind of interaction.
When we became a family of three, we recognized right away that teaching our son about life and its challenges can be tricky.
And we kept hearing that, with kids, more things are “caught than taught.” We would pose the question to ourselves and each other: What will we do to help our son catch that these people, who have nothing, are still valuable human beings, that there could still be hope for them?
This has been a question that we have wrestled with alongside the members of our church small group for a few years. We would discuss it in loose terms, talk about how we gave so and so a dollar when we saw them, but it never seemed like enough.
So, last year, we determined we were going to do something about it. We pulled together a list of items to put together in care packages to hand out whenever we ran across someone in need. The kids had a such great time helping put these care packages together that we decided we would make these packages an annual tradition, one which we would use to open our eyes to other needs we originally couldn’t see.
Through this whole process I’ve learned that, while we definitely need to reach out to someone to help meet their physical needs when we can, doing this can often give us the opportunity to help the person on the receiving end of a care package feel valued. For someone so used to being looked over, look through, and looked past, feeling valued is such a gift.
I recently wrote about how I’ve felt challenged over the past two years to say “no” so that I could say “yes” to more important things. One of my goals this year is that one of my “yes” answers brings me the opportunity to not only hand a homeless person a care package, but to also have the time to hear that person’s story. I’m hoping to find my friend on the corner, under her blankets, look her in the eye and help her feel valued.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’m brave enough to hear the stories of what landed these people on the streets. Adam is by far better at this than I. But, this isn’t about me. It’s about them feeling like they have a voice, like they feel that for one moment someone cares.
Because it all boils down to this: I don’t want to teach my son that he should love all people. I want him to catch that love and compassion for others by being a part of reaching out to them now, while he’s young. I don’t want to teach him that it’s right to treat every person well, I want him to catch that each person is a unique, valuable human being, despite their financial position, because he’s already aware and interacting with them now. I don’t want to teach him that someone, somewhere should do something to help others. I want him to catch that he is that someone, somewhere.
If he can catch all of that at age 8, he will be two decades smarter, stronger, and more compassionate than his momma ever was.