Sunday, February 9, 2014

On Noticing Who Lives in the Cold


   I certainly have been busy.  I was surprised to see that it's been a few months since I had last posted here.   Life has been busy.   Regarding writing, there is not much new to report.  I am working on a third book but it is presently at the outlining and research phase.  I am making some good connections with regard to the literary world, but nothing I thought you would all like to hear about.
    Today I thought I would share this. A lot of writing comes as a consequence of simple living with ones eyes being open.   There is a place off the interstate highway where I occasionally get gasoline and eat at one of the restaurants there.  There is also a small shopping center.   Several months ago, I noticed that a young woman was waiting at the entrance to the shopping center.  She looked clean and well, yet had a sign which said something about being homeless and any amount being helpful.   From the vantage point of the restaurant, occasionally you can see someone give her one or two dollars.  Most people simply pass by.  Americans are fundamentally generous people, but in the past few years we have learned to be very discerning.    When I am in Richmond, I have noticed some people claiming to be homeless pocketing hundreds of dollars in a few hours in a good location.  I watched one of them charging his iphone by unplugging the soda machine outside the Target.   I noted that one of the homeless men had very expensive hiking boots, I'd seen at REI, and I noticed him again buying liquor at yet another shopping center later that day.  This has been such a problem there, that local governments have made "pan handling" illegal there.  This is curious to me as it seems to me to be a civil right, and because I would rather have people pan handling than robbing me. (But that's just me.)  The local government there was successful in making it illegal by claiming that it is a hazard to traffic, and on occasion, it is.      Americans have also learned to become jaded, and have learned that while we clip coupons and try to pay our bills, others are willing to stand with a sob story, ready to squander the money we give them, even later that day.
 At first when I saw the woman waiting at the interstate, I wondered if she had a similar story.  There is also some danger in approaching these people.  A percentage of them are mentally ill and have drifted from family members.  Approaching a schizophrenic, for example,  who ran out of meds a month ago, for example, can be extremely dangerous, because you don't really know what their delusions are telling them.  A person outside the science museum in Richmond was stabbed to death by a homeless man, as she walked her dog a couple of years ago.
  This time, I saw the  young woman I had mentioned  within the restaurant and since there were lots of people around, I felt fairly safe in speaking with her.  I told her that I don't carry cash, but that I did have a credit card and that I would be happy to take her to lunch there.   She was cautious, and a little afraid, but she agreed.   She ordered one thing from the dollar menu, and so I ordered a couple of additional things for her, as I had already eaten and was sipping on a giant diet soda.  I told her to sit down and I would bring the food.  I gathered the plastic silverware and straws and napkin.   When I brought the food, I asked her whether it was okay if I sat with her while she ate, as most people would rather have company when they ate.  She agreed.   I noticed then that her face was fairly windburned from being outside so much in the cold weather we have had.  She also seemed tired.   I spoke with her showing interest but without getting too personal in my questions.   She was in her thirties and until the last couple of years had a job in the city which is about fifty miles from there.  The place closed and this depleted her savings as she looked for a new job.  She did get another job which ended when that place closed also.  Since then, she has been unable to find another job although she has been trying hard.  She has used homeless persons services in the city a distance from here, but has been coming out to this area to get a small amount of cash before returning to the city periodically.  She also has a disability insurance case pending which has been slowed by her not having a legal address.   She is a young woman not unlike many of our daughters, but without the family and back up systems my own kids would have if something like this happened to them.
   I noticed a number of people and families who had just been to church were sitting in the restaurant were watching us.   I wondered why none of them inquired as to why a young woman was out in the bitter cold.   Did her car break down ?  Does she need to use a cell phone or call a taxi ?    I also noticed that the restaurant, where they know me, looked flabbergasted that I bought this young woman a meal.
  I know that we can't risk our lives by asking every homeless person what they need.  I know that we can't take everyone who is down on their luck out to dinner.   I get that those of us with small children with us can't endanger them by speaking to people who are homeless, and might have mental health issues.
However,  it struck me as surreal that an entire restaurant of people in Sunday best, who just finished worshiping Jesus Christ, who was a champion of helping those who needed assistance, looked at her as if she had leprosy.    She is a young woman with clean hair, wearing  outdoor clothing.  She may have been a former soldier.  Yes, the folks who fought on behalf of our nation, and then couldn't find work when they got home again.   She is someone's daughter.  It's not okay that someone's daughter is standing in the cold, isn't drinking enough water, and isn't eating properly.   I know we can't find her a job and an apartment by Tuesday.  I get that homelessness is a complex and multifactorial issue.   What I don't get is why we can't convey hope, humanity,  and encouragement, especially on a Sunday after so many of the people there who wore the "Christian uniform" and are eating on the way home from church.   Many studies tell us that most of us sit just a few pay checks from homelessness.  You'd think that most of us would be more mindful of that.
   I know I can't save the world.   But I think I will buy a large bottle of gummy vitamins at Sam's Club for Karen. I will give them to her the next time I see her.  I hope that you will do whatever you can within the framework of your own life,  too, when you see someone for whom you could do perhaps a small favor, conveying that they are not forgotten, and that they still sit within the family of humanity.