It’s gotten super cold where I live. The temperature dropped to the 30’s earlier than usual this year. When the temperatures become dramatic, whether it’s extreme cold or heat, heavy rain/snow, or nasty wind, I worry even more about people who live outside.
Notice that I did not call people who live outside “the homeless”. I guess because it is a term that is used so much in my city that I’ve grown weary of the label. “What to DO about the homeless problem” is a hot topic in the news, on social media, on every political platform, and is an issue that’s never going to be fully resolved no matter what we do. Want to know why? Because people are complicated, whether they live inside or outside. Complicated, difficult and messy and impossible to “fix” when dealt with as a mass. It’s like mindlessly shoveling snow in a blizzard to clear a walkway instead of appreciating each unique snowflake in the pile. So much easier to just keep shoveling the pile aside. And most of the time way more practical.
I personally have some serious emotional conflict regarding people who live their lives outside instead of inside, like I do. I continue to question what my responsibility is, especially because there are always going to be a few complicated, difficult and messy people who disagree with what I think, do and say whether I’m trying to save all the people, dogs and sea turtles with my actions or instead sitting on my ass happily sipping a latte through a straw, mindlessly scrolling chewy.com on my phone wishing I could buy toys for my own dogs, whom I paid money for instead of finding them on a rescue site, all while closing my mind to the fact that in the alley nearby, people, some of whom have dogs, are trying to sleep in dirty puddles. Is it so terrible enjoy a rarely purchased latte without complication?
About five or six years ago I volunteered every Friday at the House of Charity. I peeled potatoes and helped serve lunch and got up and personal with a few people who where having a tough go at things and listened to stories and information the other volunteers told me about some of the patrons. How to tell when such and such hadn’t taken his meds for schizophrenia, and if he hadn’t to not make eye contact with him when he came through the lunch line. How such and such had lived purposefully on the streets for 30 years but was tidy and clean and proud of who he was; he just had this fear of being inside. I wonder to this day what happened to him as a child that gave him this resolve to never sleep indoors. How such and such will always ask for two desserts and how I was to say no to her, because it was breaking the rules. I once snuck her two pieces of chocolate cake, smooshed together on one plate so it didn’t look like I was playing favorites. She was so delighted, with her sweet-tooth(less) grin. Rules be damned.
A few years after that I did a couple of winter night walks with a group of people, handing out coffee, bologna sandwiches and socks to people who were camped out in tents under the freeway overpass. I was the only female on these walks so I was able to have conversations with the ladies who were afraid to come out of their tents if men approached them. I remember one older gal: she was so sick, a hacking cough that was deep and worrisome. She was grateful for the hot coffee. I also had a scary confrontation with a couple of younger men who demanded to know why we didn’t have coats. “Fuck socks, we need coats.”
I once got in a banana throwing battle with a guy I passed regularly on my drive to work every morning. He was old, dirty, and looked like alcoholism was going to take him sooner than later but he was generally pretty friendly. I sometimes gave him granola bars, sometimes a water bottle, and one day all I had was my breakfast banana, so I handed it to him through my car window. But he tossed it back at me. I tossed it back again, saying, “Take it, it will be good for you.” He tossed it back to me saying “I don’t want your stinking banana.” I was holding traffic up at this point but I was now highly annoyed and refused to budge on this. “Hey Mr. Grumpy, I’m thinking that SOMEONE needs a little potassium today!” I yelled and threw the banana at him a little harder than I probably should have, based on the stunned look on his face when it hit his chest as I sped away, banana war won. He was a part of my life for over a year. Then one day he was just gone. And I’m not going to even pretend he had a happy ending, save for maybe the afterlife being better for him. I can only hope for this. And wonder. I miss my weird daily connection with him.
I have found myself so angry at the people who live outside. The other day the alley behind my office was FILLED with trash. I’m talking needles, feces, urine, food, wrappers, clothing, a broken bike, all produced literally overnight. It was disgusting and right out of my self righteous mouth came the words “Fucking street people!”. I actually kind of jolted at my nasty words. Especially because just the other day, during a torrential downpour, I witnessed a gal carrying all her possessions in a hefty bag that suddenly broke, her clothes pouring out onto the sidewalk. I happened to be stuck behind construction when it happened. Two gentlemen, both in scrubs walked right past her, either ignoring or oblivious (I don’t judge at all, she looked pretty hard to help). But I rolled down my window and yelled at one of the men, “Hey! Can you give this to her?” I happened to have a giant bag with handles from one of my manufacturers I sell for in the back seat of my car. The guy looked at me blankly and I pointed to the gal struggling in the rain with her stuff. He said no at first and I said “OH COME ON! Just give it to her!” I tend to be pushy sometimes. He finally rolled his eyes and took the bag. She had no idea it came from me or even the guy who gave it to her who tossed it at her feet and walked away before she saw him. When she saw the bag, she looked up into the sky and made a thank you gesture just as the traffic began to flow again, which was FANTASTIC. God sent her a bag just in the nick of time! Ha! And I was reminded how easy it would be to cause messes like the alley when you don’t have a good sturdy bag to carry your stuff around in.
Fast forward to the second half of the day, coming out the back door of my office without my coat, intending to go to Dutch Brothers to get a cup of coffee. The alley was still trashed, but my eyes zeroed in on a man sitting up against the cement railroad bridge that runs along the length of my office. He was just sitting there, dazed, maybe wondering “what’s next?”. I shivered without my coat and thought how it would feel to be outside all the time, cold to the bones in the winter, sweltering and angry in the summer. And I also had a little epiphany: this man didn’t cause all this trash. But I blamed HIM, lumped him into the masses when I said the words ‘fucking street people’. It’s no different than saying the ridiculous words ‘all blondes are dumb’ or ‘all priests are pedophiles’. I wandered over to him and asked him if he wanted a coffee, that I was going to get myself one and had enough cash for two. “Yes please ma’am” and then “sugar and cream” when I asked him what kind of coffee he would like and a “thank you ma’am” when I handed it to him. I didn’t linger. He didn’t want to chat with me. But he was polite in receiving and my rage about the trashed alley diminished. I also decided that my inside living, with it’s trash cans, toilets and cupboards to put my stuff in made it so much easier to appear like I have it all together. When I peeked outside later to see if he was still there, he wasn’t. Nor was his empty coffee cup.
See here’s the thing. I do not even pretend to believe that any of these people remember me or any interactions I had with them. Most of them are in survival mode and I’m pretty sure I made zero or at least very little difference in their lives. I know this and I’m okay with this. But oh my gosh, I remember my encounters with THEM and I am better for it, saved daily in fact. You see, much of what I do in this world, I do to save me from myself. That’s the total honest, and pretty darn selfish truth. I call it homing in on myself: creating a home in the here and now, by meeting myself right where I am in an encounter with whomever is in front of me, unique humans, good, bad, or indifferent, living indoors or out, and do then my best to think and act with clarity and truth. I know I can’t save anyone, not really. People need to go their own way. My responsibility is to save myself by remaining present in my messy, complicated and difficult life and in the process maybe see a few snowflakes through the hard to manage snow piles every now and then.