The homeless are everywhere – sometimes seen and sometimes not. In Geneva, they are unseen, but present. From Rome and Paris to New York and L.A., they are seen panhandling and loitering wherever they can. Closer to home, I come across them on street corners and parks, and the buses I ride traverse bridges that shelter them.
Almost always, the homeless are strangers.
The Homeless Neighbor Here
The other day, while walking in my neighborhood, I came across my mother walking alongside an older lady pushing a cart. I thought nothing of the encounter; my mom often socializes along the street while running errands on foot. As soon as she spotted me, though, she called urgently.
The lady was newly arrived to the neighborhood after decades of absence; someone coming from Houston had dropped her off at a local church. The lady had poor sight and hearing, but had strong persuasive skills. “I need help finding my friends – Toña y Lupe; they live right here, just across the street from the high school.” Just like that – no last name, no address, no phone number.
“Lead her by the cart while I ask people along the street if they know her friends or recognize her,” said my mother. Although the lady’s indications seemed simple, we came to discover that the map in her head was wrong.
After much trial and error, we found the house. Everyone rejoiced, and Toña agreed to care for the lady. During the exchange between Toña and my mother, I learned that the lady – Maria Dolores Villarreal, known in the neighborhood as Sister Dolores – had worked with migrants in the 1980s, during amnesty, by helping them with their paperwork for residency. That was how Toña and Dolores had met. The mystery remained as to why Sister Dolores was not protected by her congregation.
At the conclusion of our search, I walked away with mixed feelings. Why had the lady been abandoned at the church doorstep? Why did no one care after her despite her work for the church? I was glad, however, that Toña’s family felt enough gratitude towards Dolores as to allow her to stay with them. Part of me wondered if I, too, would end up on the street someday.
The hypocrisy of people’s gratitude slapped me on the face the following day. The lady had been found back at the church, and when she was returned to Toña’s house, she was turned away. That’s gratitude for you; Toña’s entire family had acquired citizenship via Dolores, and this was how Dolores was paid in return.
One thought came to mind: This never would have happened in El Salvador! Sure there are homeless there. The difference is that Salvadorans have more heart and know how to express gratitude (by action, if not by word). My memories were triggered.
The Homeless Neighbor There
When I was a volunteer, one of my friends converted her empty chicken coop into a shelter for an elderly gentleman. A chicken coop may sound like an inhumane place to shelter someone, but no other space was available. My friend explained that the old man had no one in the world to take care of him, so she took on the responsibility. The man was immobile, could barely speak, rarely felt hungry, and could not keep himself clean – the man was waiting for death. When the time came, as regulated by custom, the whole community attended his wake.
When I walked the dirt paths of my community, I would often come across an elderly woman with a toddler. I was amazed that the toddler was made to walk so much, and that the woman spent little time at home. One day, I expressed my curiosity to a friend. The child had been left in the woman’s care without a cent of financial contribution from the parents. The woman was not simply visiting friends, as I had initially assumed, but was relying on the culture of hospitality in order to survive. Hospitality came to her in the form of a cup of milk, an egg, or whatever foodstuff the host had to offer. (I, too, was given that sort of hospitality.)
After a three year absence, I revisited my old community. Although some of the infrastructure and available services had changed, the culture of hospitality had not. I reencountered the roaming woman with a little girl that would soon be ready for school. Will the girl be able to attend school? I was amazed that the girl looked as healthy as she did. They were visiting a friend of mine, sharing a cup of cold milk.
Towards the end of my stay there, I visited another friend of mine. In the corner of her porch was a cot piled with rags. The rags moved; I assumed there were chickens or cats under there. “Oh, the old man has waked,” she said off hand. I looked over and distinguished a frail form curled up in oversized clothes. “What is he doing there?” “He’s really sick and there is no one else to care after him,” she explained.
Perspective Between Here & There
Before my departure back to the US, news circulated that morning of the old man’s death. People made plans to attend the wake. If I grow old and have no one to care after me, will anyone show such open hearted generosity and hospitality? In the US, based on many observances and experiences, the most likely answer is no. The US may have social services, but that is simply a faceless, removed form of “care” – the kind of care that says, “You may be deserving of it, but I don’t want to get personally involved to find out if you do or not.”
The only way to truly see the face of poverty is to get personally involved. When we don’t, we cheat ourselves into thinking that poverty does not exist. In the past, when I have gone to work early, I would cheat myself into thinking that the people in the park were simply out enjoying the weather. After Thanksgiving, our house had lots of leftovers, which I knew would go bad if not consumed fast. To keep the food from going to waste, I made turkey sandwiches and stuffed them in a bag with extra cans of soda pop. I hoped to catch the individuals at the park, but by 8 AM they had already left; only one man remained.
I approached the man sitting at the bench. As I got closer, I realized he was sleeping. I figured I would leave the sack by his side, but the rustle of the bag wakened him. When he looked up at me, the left side of his face was bandaged and bloody. I did not want him to think I was a threat, so instead of saying anything, I simply offered the bag. He took it, said thank you, and put it beside him. As I walked away, though, I heard him open the bag to investigate its contents. I wondered if the man had gotten himself in trouble, or if he was an innocent victim of someone’s violent behavior.
The experience of helping the lost elderly lady and the injured man in the park left me wondering about their lives. Even now I continue to think about them. Are they okay? Have they fared any better? What will become of them? I would have never asked myself these kinds of questions had I not gotten personally involved.
Currently, the Kyoto Protocol is in danger of falling apart due to the US’s failure to become involved in protecting the environment. The US as an entity is apathetic of others. Here we are discussing how much taxes people should pay while whole nations are in danger of extinction due to melting ice caps. As a whole, the US can’t fathom a poor family living in a bamboo hut in the pacific islands. “Who cares so long as I am not affected,” I can hear people saying. This kind of attitude really means that it is time for us to start caring.
Start caring. Get involved. Start small if you have to; give away those leftovers you know are going to end up getting thrown out. Volunteer at a shelter, but don’t get stuck talking to other volunteers; get to know the residents by talking to them. If you are in school or belong to a church (or even at work!), see what volunteer activities your organization has to offer. Organize an activity if none are available.
Or maybe you’re the type that’s ready to jump in head first. Do it! Join a national or international volunteer organization; many organizations don’t have an age limit, or have programs for different ages. AmeriCorps and Peace Corps are awesome! Or join something else that strikes your fancy.
The main point is: we need to start caring, we need to start doing, and we must do so now.