Homelessness is not just an economic-structural problem. It’s a cultural problem and at its core, a spiritual problem. We who are privileged are emotionally armored against the massive, global, traumatic experience of our fellow human beings.
Even though I live in a house, I do not feel “at home” with people who have no house. I am not comfortable with my tendency to look away from the men and women on street corners with their cardboard signs. I have now become aware of the emotional armor that has kept me from looking at them with curiosity and respect.
Recently I took a step outside that armor by interviewing people on the street as part of the Point-In-time Count. The survey questions I was told to ask were not about how they felt, yet I could see it in their eyes, their body language, hear it in their tone of voice. I was so shocked to discover that I have the same feelings they do: powerless, sad, guilty, ashamed, anxious, angry, depressed, and afraid.
I feel shame and anger to be living in the midst of what seems to be an overwhelming and complex system of oppression of people not much different than myself, and to think that I have neither the knowledge nor capacity to improve the situation. I feel guilty for having a privileged lifestyle. I am not at home with this inequality. It doesn’t matter which side of it I am on, I am one with the homeless when I feel so sad about it.
That sadness has the power to keep me stuck if I choose to allow that to happen, and by visiting the camps, I have met men and women who have demonstrated time and time again that those feelings are temporary.
Out of necessity, our fellow travelers on this journey are sharing amongst themselves the very qualities of character which they could teach to the rest of us “homies:” humility, acceptance and compassion. THEY are the crisis survivors, the resilient ones, the leaders to the next level of human functioning, believe it or not! They know how to build community and family, to stick together in support of each other, create safe spaces for each other to fall apart and normalize their traumatic experiences, communicate with touch and hugs, validate with empathy, and just hold their ground against overwhelming odds. Their heartfelt courage is extraordinary.
I believe we need the crisis stories of homelessness to be adopted as part of our culture becogether.
Let us be compassionate listeners. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.