Sunday morning we got up and headed to IHOP which is where we all planned to meet for breakfast by 7am. Walking across town I felt like my legs were made of wood and my brain was in a fog. Bruk said that this is pretty much how you feel every day of your life when you’re homeless. We had enough money from panhandling to eat at the restaurant, and it was downright luxurious to sit in a warm restaurant (yes, even an IHOP) with a bottomless pot of hot coffee. The waitress we had actually served the street retreaters last year and remembered us. She told us any time we are coming that we should call ahead and she’ll come in to serve us even on her day off.
When we were done with breakfast, we headed to Church Under the Bridge–a big church service and breakfast held for the homeless under the Interstate each week. They had a band and tables of food, and lots of seating. From there, I caught a ride home (to my house) with Bruk and Robin and got back by around 12:30. My weekend was over.
It took me almost two days after I got home just to get to the point where I didn’t want to sleep all the time. The 48 hours I spent out on the streets were exhausting and physically uncomfortable in every possible way. I managed to get some fantastic blisters from all the walking around we had to do, too:
But ever since last weekend, much more than my body has been in recovery. My soul is pretty tender, too. After experiencing just a little bit of what these homeless men and women live with every day of the year, I now see clearly that homelessness is the byproduct of a very dysfunctional society.
How many people who are currently working on issues of homelessness have ever done something like a street retreat? How many people that provide services to the homeless have tried to get to appointments, stand in long lines, and find basic necessities in the face of constant exhaustion, physical discomfort, illness (mental and physical), and chemical dependencies without transportation and the support of people who actually give a damn whether you live or die?
How many of us have begrudged a homeless person for having a phone or some other ‘luxury’ item without stopping to realize that it may be one of their only possessions and they are using it to survive? How many of us — even at our most compassionate — just hand some cash to a guy on the side of the road without ever looking in his eyes?
You want to help the homeless? REALLY help them? Here’s what I suggest:
Smile at them. Ask them how they’re doing. Tell them you hope they have a nice day. Keep some small bills in your pocket and hand them to panhandlers–and don’t worry about what they are using it for. They are using it to survive. Keep some bus passes and bottled water in your car to give out when you’re driving across town…and look at them in the face when you hand it to them. Acknowledge that they are human, that they are living a shitty, shitty existence and that you hope they stay safe out there. Ask if they need something when you’re walking into the store if you see one standing outside. Volunteer with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, CARITAS or other organizations that serve the homeless population. Pray for them. Pray with them. Vote against laws and policies that make life even harder for them.
Alan Graham, founder at Mobile Loaves & Fishes, always says that the root cause of homelessness is a profound loss of family. It’s true. Most of us would turn to our families if we had no place to go. These folks don’t have that, for whatever reason. A lot of what we at Mobile Loaves & Fishes do for the homeless folks we work with is just stuff their families would do if they had them: we take them to doctor’s appointments, help them check their emails or set up Facebook accounts, help them find work or get into a rehab program. We’re not doing magic over here–we’re giving people boots so that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
And perhaps most importantly, we’re loving them. The homeless population is STARVING… for love. They live in a hostile environment where the greater population ignores or derides them. There is very little trust among the homeless –they are watching their back all the time. Authority figures are not there to protect them–they’re there to make sure that the homeless don’t bother the ‘good’ people of Austin.
I’m not spouting some hippy-dippy love and daisies bullshit here. I’m talking about love for your fellow man and woman–treating people who have nothing to offer you and who you may even feel threatened by (physically, emotionally, or spiritually) with dignity and respect. That’s what’s missing in the ‘solutions’ for the homeless that so many of our great social engineers are overlooking.
And that kind of love can’t be bought or legislated.
Think about it.
I know I can’t think of anything else these days.
We have another retreat coming up at the end of March. Register to participate here.