I have never been homeless.
I find it really hard to imagine what being homeless would be like.
Or maybe I don’t, and that is why homelessness makes me so sad and depressed and torn.
In order to be homeless, you need to have something separating you from the society we swim in.
It can be something in you: a friend’s dad was often homeless because of a mental disorder, and unless you force someone to take medicine to keep them “sane” then there’s no way to assure they won’t lose themselves to the world.
It can be something you’ve done: one of the homeless men in Kicking It had robbed banks for eight years when younger, then been in jail, and when released had no family anymore, or at least none that wanted anything to do with him.
It can be something done to you: a homeless kid running away from home to escape abuse. A family on the street because of a foreclosure. Here we put all the people ousted from society because of society.
I went to school in Washington, D.C. on a campus only a few blocks from the White House. Homeless people were intrinsic to the fabric of city life. During the winter, homeless men and women would sleep on sewer grates, a light blanket over them to help capture the steam rising from below. The stoops of churches were littered with curled bodies.
The story I remember hearing was that the flood of homeless on the streets was due to a mental hospital being forced to shut its doors and the mentally unstable inside having nowhere to go but out into the unprepared world.
But the world was prepared. I was prepared.
I don’t know if the story about St. Elizabeth’s is true, but I do know that the idea that the homeless were all helplessly mad helped me to deal with them. If they’re mad, then I don’t have to treat them as people, because they can’t respond as people.
The world is prepared. I am prepared.
When someone approaches me with that unmistakable gait, the slowness that marks embarrassment, a certain weariness, I already know what I’m going to say:
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”
Literally, I’m lying. The person is asking for a few bucks to get into the local shelter and though I don’t have much myself, I have never had so little I couldn’t partition it and give some away. The person is asking for food, and I could easily afford a sandwich. The person is asking for bus fare and though I have no proof that’s what they are going to use the money for, is that really my problem?
Literally, I’m telling the truth. I can’t help the woman rolling the shopping cart down the street, its bed filled with clothes and cleaning supplies, plastic bags festooning the metal cage, each laden down with what I can only describe as junk. I can’t help the shirtless man walking down the street, muttering to himself incessantly. This sort of help is too much work for one person.
Literally, I’m not even trying.