Danny L. (that’s all the name he wanted to give) is 53 and has been homeless for three months. So he says. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of him but trust me when I say that he looked a little more homeless than just three months. I knew lies were going to be a problem in this endeavor, but something I had not considered were the reasons for deception: pride, embarrassment, shame. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he just didn’t trust me. And really, why should he? Throughout our entire conversation, his eyes shifted with uncertainty to the notepad in which I was scribbling. The man was visibly ashamed of himself for being in need and I am entirely haunted by that.
I could go into the reasons why he was chronically homeless; he alluded to them if not specifically saying “this, this, and this dragged me to the streets,” but that wouldn’t be fair to Danny because it would satisfy the curiosity for a lot of people and make his homelessness falsely understandable. Any answer to that question shouldn’t make another human being’s destitution acceptable. Why should an individual’s actions be solely to blame when that person is only operating within the boundaries of his institution? Our institution. Is it not our moral duty to help someone up when he’s fallen in a society that we have indifferently allowed to be constructed around him? If not our moral duty then what about our sense of decency? And if not decency then what about our rules of faith? Isn’t there a clause in a holy book or scroll or whatever that demands attention to the less fortunate? How about this one:
“Then the King will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ And the King will tell them, ‘I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” (Matthew 25:34-40).
Imagine life without all your securities and ask yourself what your plan would be to get out of homelessness. Could you sleep restfully when you’ve been continuously robbed in the night? Where would you drink water? In which part of a large city block would you feel most comfortable defecating? These are the most basic of human needs to which I’d wager not a single person reading this ever gives any serious thought.
To my knowledge, Danny’s not a menace to society. He’s not a rapist or a murderer. He didn’t even strike me as someone who would steal (something you can bet your ass I’d be aggressively doing if I were starving). He’s just a dirty homeless guy that nobody looks at, except when he’s having a thoughtful conversation with someone who’s lucky enough to still be able to wash his clothes with soap. A lot of passersby craned their heads as they scurried into Safeway. I found that to be insulting.
Hmmm, this post isn’t what I wanted it to be. I don’t really know what I was expecting. I’m surprised by my reaction. And that’s what this is, I guess: reflexive. I’ll do better next time, but for now, I’ll surrender to reflection. I have no call to action other than this: Being homeless is miserable. Fucking miserable, and in Danny’s own resigned words, “It’s never ending.” So the next time you’re irritated by someone’s begging for sustenance, try wondering about their humanity. When was the last time life became too overwhelming and they cried into their hands? That bothers me. I hadn't thought of it before.