I encounter a lot of homeless people in my job as security staff. Some I see so often that I know their names and their basic story, and where they like to sit to ask for money. When possible I’ll bring out some extra pizza that wasn’t purchased and is about to be thrown away. I’ll give it to the homeless people outside. Everybody deserves to eat. It’s truly staggering how much perfectly good food is thrown away every night.
On my way to my truck after I’m off work, I always walk past numerous homeless people sleeping in doorways, or bolstering their bed with blankets, tarps, or cardboard. It’s going to be cold tonight. If they are asleep I usually look and listen long enough to determine signs of life. This would be their exhaled breath in the cold air, snoring, or just their chest moving as they breathe. If they are awake and we make awkward eye contact, I’ll nod at them and smile. I am no threat to you, friend. I recall the scene in THE EXORCIST where the homeless man sits in filth and asks Damien Karras, “Can you help an old altar boy, Father?” If they aren’t already hunkered down in their temporary fort against the elements, they are traveling around like nomads carrying their gear in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Some have a sleeping bag wrapped around them. Others have multiple backpacks and shopping bags hanging from their arms. Some push shopping carts around. Some carry large pieces of wooden pallets or cardboard boxes over their heads to build a sleep structure with. They look like river explorers portaging their canoe over land. Hell, I think I might have seen a homeless person actually carrying part of a broken canoe once.
Using the pallet as a floor, they can sleep on that and not get soaked by the rain. Or, worst case scenario, soaked by spilled cheap beer or vomit. Tarps become walls and roofs. Cardboard boxes become walls, and wind and rain shields. If they can acquire an actual tent, it’s like they’ve won the lottery. Body heat is retained inside, rain and wind is deflected, and you even have a small modicum of privacy. There is definitely safety in numbers, so clumping 5-6 tents together is smart and very common. Some people like to complain about the homeless tent camps blocking sidewalks and being unsightly and unsafe. I’m pretty sure that at 3:30am the people complaining about that are home safe in their beds. I’m the one out walking around at that hour, and I’m happy to step around the tents. These same people are probably also deathly afraid of a raging gang of homeless people crouched together inside these tents, laying in wait to ambush the next pedestrian so that they can rape, kidnap, and murder them. And if this scenario has ever actually happened anywhere, I’ll eat that tarp. Homeless people are trying to stay warm and sleep, not assault a passerby. And until those huge churches that preach ‘love thy brother’ actually open up their doors at night and operate as a homeless shelter, they can all shut their sanctimonious and judgmental pieholes.
I love seeing dogs with homeless people. That might sound odd, but I just love dogs more than I do most people. Also I had it explained to me once how the life of a dog living with a homeless person might not be that bad comparatively. In fact, it could be better if you look at it through this lens. A dog who lives with a homeless person is never without their owner. Our dogs are so domesticated and reliant on us that they really just want to be with their owners all the time. You can walk out your front door, forget something, and come right back in the house and your dog will start wiggling its entire body it is so happy to see you. They greet you like you’ve been gone for two weeks when it’s really only been two minutes. Do any humans react that way each and every time they see you?
Most of us leave the house for long periods for our jobs, school, and other activities. So we aren’t there all day. Our house dogs are either alone for those long stretches, or we have to board them at doggie day care. That can be fun but it’s a lot of canine stimulation, and they still aren’t with their owner. Some dogs get bored and howl and bark all day. Or they destroy things around the house waiting for us to return. Things like shoes, dog kennels, banisters, chess boards, bed frames, doors, piano legs. I might know this from personal experience. A dog living with a homeless person is always with them feeling important and needed. They are keeping their human safe. If I was sleeping in a tent at night alone, I would sleep ten times better with a dog in there with me to growl at any approaching danger. And it is positive touch and companionship.
Further, it reminds me of studies showing that having a pet benefits older people by giving them a reason outside of themselves to get up each morning and feed/exercise the dog. Some other creature is relying on you to get up and take care of them. This can counter apathy, loneliness, and depression. Especially involving empty-nest syndrome when all of the kids and grandkids have left the house. People live longer if they have pets to care for. The mere act of stroking a dog’s fur has been shown to lower blood pressure and calm anxiety. Homeless people certainly struggle with loneliness, social isolation, depression, and anxiety. Some people probably do not get touched at all for the entire day. They receive no physical human contact like we all take for granted. No handshakes, fist bumps, hi-fives, hugs, holding hands, kisses. I couldn’t even guess how many of these I get daily. Multiple dozens probably. I guarantee that the only touch some of these people ever get is from their dog licking their face.
Some people don’t want to give a homeless person money for fear that they would spend it on drugs or Old English 800 malt liquor. Then some animal lovers carry around dog food in their car for the sole purpose of giving it to dogs that are with homeless humans. Or they’ll run into the store and come out with some dog food and a deli sandwich for them. I never see starving dogs with homeless people. The dogs are sometimes better fed than their 2-legged companions are. Lots of dogs aren’t allowed to sleep in the bedroom, or sometimes even the house. They are relegated to the garage, basement, or even a dog house in the yard. Dogs that live with homeless people are with them all day long, and then as a bonus they get to sleep curled up right next to their humans. No worries about tracking some dirt in from the yard, or getting dog fur on the brand new comforter. So bless these homeless dogs, I’m so happy to see you here with your people.
For a time I volunteered with the Portland Burrito Project. This is a national DIY group that feeds homemade burritos to the homeless population. Any city can start their own branch, as I understand it. In Portland we would collect donated food from Santa Fe Taqueria Mexican restaurant on Sunday morning. We would then take the food to an area Hostel and set up a food assembly line, making 100 veggie burritos. We then wrapped them all up, loaded up our warming bags, and drove downtown. We spent a few hours walking around looking for homeless people to feed. This was a great way to give back to the community and help out the homeless population, who are always struggling to acquire healthy food. I would often bring along some of the kids I worked with as a mentor, teaching them about community service. It would also open up conversations with the older kids about mental illness, running away from sexual abuse, and financial instability. We all got accustomed to scanning the street for homeless people to give food to, and what streets and onramps that they would typically camp near. If we found a homeless person asleep on the sidewalk with their backpack as a pillow, we would just leave a nice warm burrito wrapped in foil by their head. Hopefully they would wake up to the smell of a burrito and enjoy the magical gift of food from a stranger.
Of course, some people present as homeless when they are not. Or their chosen aesthetic of clothing attire resembles the disheveled bundled-up look of a homeless person. If you research the term “Homeless chic” you will see pictures of fashion models actually pushing shopping carts down the runway with oversized bags, wearing bland layered clothing. Highly paid fashion models are dressing like homeless people to sell overpriced clothes. I really don’t have the proper words for that nonsense.
I certainly cannot guess a person’s socio-economic status in the seconds I have while I approach them. Although we were attempting to help feed the homeless, there’s no solid way to actually be sure. There isn’t an ID card that proves you are homeless, nor would we actually refuse to give a person food who wanted some (unless they were aggressive or threatening us in some way). So we defaulted to giving just about anybody a burrito that seemed interested or hungry. A whole lot of people can appear homeless that aren’t.
But in my head I would play the game of ‘Who is about to get a free burrito?’
A) A truly homeless person.
B) A mentally ill person.
C) A street kid.
D) A low-income housing resident.
E) A tweaker actively on drugs.
G) A desperately broke college student.
H) A resident of a treatment/recovery center on a smoke break.
I) People who just intentionally dress like they are homeless.
J) People who think that they are Marilyn Manson, Al Jorgensen, or Rob Zombie.
We quickly learned to avoid those people suffering from mental illness that are cussing to themselves and punching at the air. Same with drunk or high people. Some people would gratefully take the burrito, but then start telling me all of their problems. Or ask me to help them with some money, or a bus ticket to somewhere. I love to help people, but I have firm boundaries. I refuse to get sucked into anybody’s drama when doing this. I’m literally just here to give out burritos and walk away. I would think, “Put this in your mouth and stop talking to me.” And in an effort not to offend anyone that looks homeless who isn’t, we would explain ourselves in a generic way. Instead of saying, “We’re handing out free burritos to the homeless”, we would just say, “We’re delivering free food to anyone who is hungry.” People always asked us if we were a church group. Nope, just altruistic liberal hippie types who don’t want people to go hungry. Food is love.
Most people live in a false world of perceived security where they think nothing bad is ever going to happen to them. I am acutely aware that I am about two paychecks away from being homeless myself. With a few exceptions, most of my friends and co-workers would also become homeless if their paychecks stopped coming. I have a few friends who make 6 figures, but they are the minority. Most of us don’t have a savings account with anything in it for emergencies. We live from paycheck to paycheck, which still really is the norm. Virtually all of my friends have college degrees. Some have several. But that wouldn’t prevent any of us from becoming homeless if things went South. Once you stop paying your bills and your rent or mortgage, utilities get shut off and you get evicted or foreclosed on. The world owes you no guarantees. None of the people you see on the street planned or expected to be there, either. This sidewalk was not their goal.
If some severe medical injury happens requiring an ambulance or hospital stay, that could be it. A huge bill that you never recover from. Overwhelming debt with no ability to work and no money coming in. The #1 reason people declare bankruptcy in America is medical bills. What other huge life events could push someone into poverty and homelessness? Unemployment, a very bad divorce, gambling, domestic violence, being disowned by parents, rape, a public scandal, PTSD, mental health issues, a family crisis, substance abuse, not being able to afford your medications, etc. If your paychecks stopped today, how long would it take you to exhaust your savings and any accrued vacation time? What about cashing out your retirement or selling your belongings to get money? Lord knows most of us don’t have jobs that would give us any sort of severance pay. Would I sell my car or plan on living in it? Which friends would let me couch-surf and for how long? These are my thoughts at 3am, walking past dozens of homeless people, wondering what particular sequence of events brought them to this sidewalk.
I’ve worked for social service non-profit organizations, or in the service industry, for the last 25 years. I’ve loved all of the jobs I’ve worked, but they certainly haven’t ever paid me well. Non-profits are funny like that. I am blessed with a robust network of friends and family that would intervene before I actually became homeless. I know that and am very grateful. But the point remains that nobody that I know is immune to the threat. We could all be homeless far quicker than we think. I still worry that I will be the guy in the line for a free meal at the Portland Rescue Mission, and sleeping under cardboard boxes in a doorway wondering why I went to college.
I feel so dejected when I see human beings sleeping outside on a sidewalk. We aren’t meant to sleep outside in the elements on concrete lit up by streetlights. I consider our homeless population to be the true streetlight people that Journey sings about. It makes me so sad and empty that this storefront doorway is actually someone’s bed tonight. It shouldn’t be this way. Mahatma Ghandi said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” And by that metric, we fail miserably. Homeless people are sneered at, feared, ignored. They are the outsider, the non-person, a null value, they do not count. They are ridiculed, terrorized, and beaten. We owe them better than this. And we all could be among them tomorrow.
With my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my hoodie, I walk solemnly by each homeless person and say a silent blessing in my head.
Sleep in safety. Sleep in safety. Sleep in safety.
Each homeless person was once somebody’s baby boy or baby girl, an amazing and unique creation.
Your parents probably had all the hopes and dreams and optimistic expectations for you. They agonized over what to name you. You had your favorite foods and special toys. Physical features that you shared with each parent were pointed out and celebrated. Family members bought you presents and fed you on holidays. Perhaps, like me, you made forts out of cardboard boxes in your living room. Decades later you’re sleeping in a doorway with cardboard boxes for walls. When you were a child, people who loved you sung you to sleep at night to keep the bad dreams away. I wish that I could sing you to sleep tonight.
Sing me to sleep
I’m tired and I
I want to go to bed
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
‘Cause I will be gone
Don’t feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go
Sing to me
I don’t want to wake up
On my own anymore
There is a better world
Well, there must be
Well, there must be