As I look back upon the countless people I have come to know throughout the years, I consider it one of my greatest privileges to have been able to share in the lives of some of those who have no definitive place to stay. These are the ones that many refer to as the “homeless.”
Now . . . “homeless” is not a derogatory term by any stretch of the imagination. It merely defines, in one single descriptive word, the reality of being subject to the complexity of nature’s elements 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while trying to find creative ways of dealing with that reality. Before my assignment at Whispers of Hope in Grand Forks, I honestly thought that homelessness was one of those things that could be easily solved – just provide “shelter.” However, my understanding has changed through a friendship I’ve cultivated with a kind, quick to help, homeless man. Through our friendship, I’ve been given the honor of being able to ask him some rather personal questions and his honest answers have created a tectonic shift in my understanding of the reality of “homelessness.”
This personable man actually prefers to live outdoors, even during the winter months. He has described to me a sense of claustrophobia that envelops him when he moves more towards the center of large buildings and whenever he is too far from the building’s exit doors. He sometimes tells me, with a somewhat reverent tone, “Oh Gord, there is nothing like watching the stars at night before you go to sleep!” During our recent cold snap, I asked my friend where he was staying, and he replied without a shred of “poor me” in his voice, “Outside, of course . . . I just wrap a couple of extra blankets around me in my sleeping bag, and pull my hat down over my face.” Interestingly, he does not look like the stereotypical homeless man and loves to be clean shaven. He uses little, blue disposable razors in the morning without the benefit of water or shaving cream, and even though he is too polite to insult me . . . he likes to tease me about being a wimp for requiring hot water and sensitive skin gel to accomplish my morning shave. As he wanders the streets during the day most people wouldn’t recognize him as a being homeless. He always helps out at Whispers and has a keen interest in keeping the grounds surrounding our place tidy.
Yes, there are men and women who are homeless, but they are definitely not hopeless. Just because they may be without a warm structure to call home doesn’t mean they are any less important. Some desire the safety and security of a home, some don’t, but all have been through a variety of circumstances that have put them in a place where they are forced to fight a social stereotype and nature’s unrelenting elements. I’ve learned to stop asking the philosophical “why” questions. These questions are speculative in nature, and never seem to inspire appropriate action. Some may have been traumatized in their childhood years, others may have been neglected, and unfortunately, some now manage the pain of their existence through a daily addictive escape.
What I do know is that withholding adequate nutrition and shelter is not a good way to help overcome addictions. The winter months can be hard on a lot of people, often bringing the seasonal blues to even those who have a secure, beautiful home. Nevertheless, let’s remember that part of our community is in a fierce battle with nature, struggling each day for their very survival and they need our help. Hypothermia can settle in subtly and like a thief in the night, snuff out a life by morning.
Undoubtedly, hypothermia can take lives, but, in my opinion, the most ominous vanquisher of human life is a condition known as hopelessness – a condition that is indiscriminate, affecting the rich and the poor. Often, it is the little things that can turn a hopeless heart into a happy one . . . a phone call from a friend, the first song bird of spring, a hot meal combined with a few hours of fellowship in a warm place. It is my wish that those without a home, those with every material advantage imaginable, and all those in between . . . have the joy and peace of a hope-filled life.