Teaching About Those in Need

A few Sundays a month, my family and I drive into the Boston area for some dim sum. Even though we live in one of the largest cities in our state, we rarely encounter homeless people and/or families in our immediate area. Yet, whenever we drive into the city, there are two places where we are sure to see someone -- often the same people -- on the street asking for some assistance. Because we have to drive into the city frequently (doctor's appointments, mostly), my children have grown up with these familiar faces. Though, the closest they have really come to them is through our car window.

In my younger years living in the lower east side of New York City, I worked with a young man named Peter who was very active in advocacy work for the homeless in lower Manhattan. As you might imagine, homelessness is a huge issue in New York City. My co-worker not only volunteered in homeless shelters, he was frequently found sitting next to people just talking over a cups of coffee he had purchased for the two (or more) of them. Peter worked in social policy change to gain rights for the homeless. He focused on both the large scale systemic issues as well as the more intimate and personal issues.

I had the opportunity to talk with Peter about the best ways to help those who are homeless. I shared that I often wrestled with the practice of just "dropping coins in a cup" versus buying food and/or giving a blanket or a coat to someone in need. Peter told me that the best use of my money was in the homeless shelters, and the best things I could do for a person were a) treat the person as a person, and not just as a poor person; b) purchase a meal; and c) share a meal. Peter's words stuck with me.

A few years later, my sister told me about a friend she had met in her PhD program in California. This woman was single, but had recently been divorced and relocated to California from Georgia. As my sister and this woman grew closer, the woman disclosed that she had lived on the streets for a few months. My sister, her classmate in a prestigious PhD program, was shocked. Across from her was a brilliant musician, a promising academic scholar, and a put-together woman. She had a hard time believing this woman had been homeless. Because, as with many of us who have not had to experience homelessness, she thought that the a homeless person was  "dirty, down-and-out, alcoholics or drug users, products of bad decisions, unmotivated, etc....". Homeless people were not supposed to be PhD students, right?

My sister's friend went on to tell her story. She had been happily married. She participated in neighborhood block parties where people raved about her macaroni and cheese. She was a musician who practiced hours a day. Over the course of her marriage, she noticed changes in her husband. He began to disappear for long periods of time. She had not been very interested in their shared bank account but began to take notice when checks were coming back with insufficient funds. Before she knew it, her husband had gambled away their savings, was thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt, and then, he was gone. She had nothing left. There was not enough money to go anywhere, so she packed up a few things and began to sleep in the car. She would move the car every so often, but eventually realized that moving the car took gas -- and she didn't have money to fill the tank.

My sister's friend resorted to asking for help on the streets. While money was helpful, she would tell us, she really needed food. She needed water. She needed warmth, safety, and security. As an attractive woman on the streets, her environment was rarely safe, and she lived for months in constant fear.

Meeting her and hearing her story completely changed my views of "who is homeless." Especially in our recent economy, homelessness has many different faces. Different ages, different races, different family structures. The local hotel near our house is now full -- not from tourists, but rather with families who have lost their homes. Friends who are college graduates are unemployed and living on public assistance; the very assistance they once proudly and ignorantly criticized as "for people who are too lazy to work." They now have changed views as to who needs public assistance.

Yesterday, my daughter lost her tooth. And, under the pillow, she received a small sum of money. Her request was to go to the store and pick out a gift. After she had paid for her gift, she got her change and put it in her pocket. After dinner, my daughter turned to me and said, "Mommy, I have extra money here. Can we give it to the man-with-no-home next time we go to the city?" When I was her age, the heavy clicking sound of the lock button would ring in my dad's car whenever we approached a person on the corner. I was taught to be afraid. I was taught to look away. I was taught to ignore the stranger who needed assistance.

I am so glad that my child refuses to learn the lessons of my past. Rather, she looks for people in need and calls me to action.

"Mom, it's starting to get colder. Can you remember to put the box of granola bars in our car tomorrow? I don't want to forget to give it to anyone who is hungry," she said as she was getting ready for bed. "Oh, and maybe some blankets, warm things, and some towels."

She gets it. She gets that life is bigger than our own. She understands that people have needs greater than ours. She knows that she has a responsibility to care for her fellow people on this planet. She is not afraid to look; she is not afraid to feel; she is not afraid to care.

I truly think that having a physical disability has been a gift to our family. My daughter knew, from a very early age, what it felt like to have people stare at her. She has also experienced something worse -- the feeling of people treating her like she's invisible because they aren't sure what to make of her. Because my children have met people who look very different from the mainstream norm, they gravitate towards people who don't quite fit in. They are learning how to genuinely acknowledge that people are people; and that we must treat people above the labels we give them.

As we come upon the most ironic of seasons -- the Season of Giving and the "Season of Excessive Spending", what gifts will you give your children? What gifts will last beyond batteries and attention spans? What ways have you examined the lessons you were taught, and the lessons you will choose to pass on to your own children?

POST SCRIPT: Please check out this beautifully written entry with connections to the responsibility we have as Christians in the aide of the homeless.

OKAY, ANOTHER POST SCRIPT: I'm so appalled. In my desperate search to find some poignant pictures of people who are homeless, I found far too many photos of people making fun of the homeless. Seriously, we live in a twisted world...