What You Don't Know

I made a point of stopping today to talk with a man who, on Sundays, posts himself on a corner between two churches. Hoping to catch the before-and-after-prayers traffic, he carries a cardboard sign that reads, "HOMELESS - Please Help."

His name is John. I brought along a brochure for the shelter where I teach theatre, as I wanted to be sure he knew about their services. Turns out he's been there off and on--they gave him the shoes on his feet, he pointed out--but the shelter's gathering room is too noisy for him. He gets claustrophobic, he says, so when he needs something, like the shoes, he calls and arranges for a private meeting.

John could avail himself of more help, then, but even the availing is a struggle. It's something to consider: mental illness most likely caused John's homelessness, and is also preventing him from climbing back out.

I hear this kind of thing often: that access to resources and desire to change aren't always enough to help someone out of homelessness. For example, no one in Grand Rapids has any excuse to go hungry, as there are eight free meals to be had on any given weekday at various locations downtown. But the scene there, often raucous, can be a trigger to return to old ways. A very respectable woman told me that just being present in such a situation makes her want a joint, which in turn causes her to offer--or accept a request for--her services to men in order to pay for said joint.

Imagine making a choice between having food and avoiding temptation. The woman I talked to chooses the latter, and spends five hungry hours in the library, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. every day.

This is the stuff that alters perceptions, and it happens to me regularly while at the shelter. Seeing a woman come "home" from her minimum-wage job to sleep at the shelter, or watching a 57-year-old alcoholic dance with marvelous instinct, and with technique that simply can't be taught, will do that to you.

In recent theatre sessions, the women and I have looked at how society sees the homeless. I call this work "What You Don't Know."

I'll let the women speak for themselves.

--I never thought I'd be in this position.

--People say, You don't look like you're homeless. What's homeless supposed to look like? Dirty?

--I sit at the bus terminal when it's cold. They've started kicking people out. You're minding your own business, and they put you out.

--Everybody gives money to Haiti; people get help if they're homeless because of an earthquake or tornado. But it doesn't matter how you became homeless. You're homeless, and you need help.

--There are more homeless than you realize, like people who had family to take them in, or gave them money. They'd be on the street otherwise.

--A guy I know hired me to clean his dad's house. He said, "Don't tell my dad you're homeless or he won't like you." Me and the dad got along great! We had a wonderful time. If I had told him... but it would still be me! I would be the same person as the one he liked.

--You're not supposed to judge anybody. Some have more, others have less. You are definitely blessed if you have a home.


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