Homelessness 101

I’m a mom of one of those over-achieving smart kids.
I’m not bragging.  The longer I live, the more I realize how little I have to do with my kids’ competencies.
I’m watching them unfold with as much wonder and surprise as the next guy.
God’s the one who wires them together and I just get a front row seat to watch the connections solder and see the light show.

My high school aged daughter signed up to take College Algebra and Statistics at our local community college this semester.  She’s a mathematical whiz but behind the wheel—not so much. Lucky for her, she’s got a reliable taxi driver.  Enter “mama” on the scene.

Community College sits in the hub of downtown right between our premiere hospital campus, the civic theater and the public library. I’ve always loved our skyline built along the river with its trademark blue bridge and the imposing mirrored glass high rise hotel. I’ve never been a “local” in the downtown scene though. We live in the burbs in a ranch on just over an acre. Going downtown is typically saved for intentional occasions and hospital visits.Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 2.27.54 PM

The first day of class, I exited the highway to Pearl St. and noticed a homeless guy holding his sign at the intersection near the traffic light at the bottom of the ramp. When I turned the corner, there were a couple others huddled in the underpass on an icy winter day.  We parked in the cavernous garage across the street from campus and I walked my daughter to class then headed for the library to study over the next few hours.

I had a list of good intentions in my purse, plans to pursue my own adult education in those hallowed halls over the course of a semester.  I walked briskly along the edge of the cobblestone street.  The wind bit my cheeks and my eyes watered. I passed a couple more urban outdoorsmen loitering along the sidewalk.  Near the main entrance a small cluster of dudes needing their pants pulled up huddled close smoking cigarettes. I walked around them, entering through the tall wooden double doors.  A guy sitting on the bench in the entry vestibule, nodding off to sleep, served as the welcoming committee.

Our main library is a historic building with high ceilings, carved oak trim and marble accents.  The ornate wrought iron staircase leads to a foyer with gold detailing on the ceiling and tables and chairs along the periphery.
Before commencing my academic pursuits, I toured the premises since I hadn’t seen it after its renovation about a decade ago. The old fashioned charms were preserved while updating functionality and moving the grand entrance to its original location.

It was a hopping place that frigid morning.
On the main floor, computers on tables lined the center of the enormous room with bookshelves on either side.  That’s where the folks who enjoy free internet usage park. I noticed that many of the patrons donned overstuffed backpacks or garbage bags that they guarded protectively.  The tables on either side of the shelves were full too, a kaleidoscope of men and women.  It wasn’t primarily a nerdy research crowd sitting at the tables. It was more of a tired looking, bedhead group of people with an occasional book propped in front of them while they worked their phones or engaged in animated dialogue by library standards.  Many seemed pitiful by day and frightening by night.

I wanted a seat by the window wall to watch the snow dancing in the street. So did all of the backpack people. Eventually, I circled back to the upstairs foyer and found a table in the corner of what I’d describe functionally as a modified lunch room. It was mostly men munching bags of chips and drinking soda pop for brunch.  A few had their heads on the tables sleeping off a hangover or a lousy night’s rest in a cold park.

I walked away from the library that first morning to my reliable minivan with a fantastic heater like a student with a new class syllabus. I had a preview of what to expect at the library going forward but I wasn’t engaging the material yet.

It took several weeks of sitting at the tables, watching and listening to begin to connect dots, see patterns and hear common themes.

It was always a sizable crowd at the library but on sunny days when the thermometer tips above freezing, I usually scored a window seat.
The security employee circled her route and passed my table every half hour or so as the guardian of peace in the hallowed halls.
I’m a little ADD so when the conversations got too cacophonous, I’d pack up my computer bag and move to the QUIET study room to concentrate.  I didn’t mind sharing it with the patrons who took refuge there for a few winks of peaceful rest even if they snored but I lost patience with the ones who disrespected the sacredness of silence and engaged in Donald Trump’s brand of locker room banter instead.

I started to recognize some of the regulars.
There are the ones who always seem to be on their phones talking to their parole officer or their social worker, securing housing, working out child support issues. Sometimes the dialogue is as colorful as the variation in skin tones.

Then there’s the elderly gentleman who mumbles to himself about everything from World War 2 to what he had for breakfast—incessantly.  He shuffles aimlessly around the first floor on the clock–every 15 minutes- and then returns to his favorite table, the second on the right.

And, there’s the man with the chronic cough on the left.  I strategically try to position myself as far away as possible because I don’t have time for another long bout with pneumonia.

The guy in dreads I sat by last week reeked of smoke so intensely, it triggered my athsma as the woman next to him breathed slow, heavy methodical breaths.  I wondered what she dreams about…

Another lady at the table to my right chatted with a comrade who greeted her warmly and commented that he hadn’t seen her lately. She explained that she’d just been released from the local psychiatric hospital the day before and while she was there her boyfriend went to prison and her mom died.  And it all spewed out in 3 consecutive sentences.
Whew! That’s a lot to hear.  Imagine what it’s like to live in that story.

Homeless people, refugees, cancer patients, criminals, homeschool moms, white collar execs, we’re all people living a story.
And honestly, most of our stories are pretty hard—even if they look easy to spectators.
We’re all broken.
IMG_4470With all these books on both floors of this impressive stone building, the information can’t fix the fractured hearts, bodies and psyches of the people sitting at these tables.
Including me.
I’m sitting at my table in the library hurting too.  I’m quieter about it. And it’s easier to hide.  I don’t smell bad and I carry a computer bag instead of a backpack.  My purse looks designer even though it’s really just a knock off second hand from Goodwill that I paid $4.99 for. I look more put together but I have my own saga of brokenness and it’s good to remember that so as not to get haughty.

I desire wholeness, mental stability, self-respect and security, both personally and societally, for the homeless folks who have been rubbing up against my life the past few months.
But political figures or philosophies can’t create it, Laws won’t either.
Clever photo ops and free lunch are well intentioned but they’re no solution.
Widespread problems are rarely fixed formulaically.

I expect that these calamities are all in the mysterious and redemptive design of the heart of God to remind us that we need Him. He has a long term solution to fix what’s busted but He doesn’t work in the gigahertz speeds we’ve come to expect as products of the internet age.

That lady next to me who just got released from the mental hospital, God’s pursuing her. But He’s patient and kind, willing to let her sit in the mess of her sin until she get desperate enough to respond to His gentle invitation of forgiveness, His promise of an eternal home and His unfailing, unconditional love.
He wants her to know that the cross I’m wearing around my neck changes everything for her…. and for me.
Yeah, we’ll both still will have to walk through this life damaged, broken, scarred.  And yeah, we’ll still need counselors, a justice system, a medical care facility and agencies of compassion; but ultimately, there is hope.

I need to see people, like the lady at the next table through Christ’s eyes- hurting, complex, loved.  Just like God sees me.  And from that vantage point, perhaps even more than a token donation, a prayer and a simple act of solidarity, understanding and respect would be a great place to start to brighten up the dark corners of her day.

Today’s the last day of the semester.  My girl is taking her exam.  She’ll text me when it’s over and tell me how she’s bummed that she missed a point and only got a 99%. Without a doubt she’ll ace the class and walk away with a check mark next to her college math credits. Goal accomplished.

fullsizeoutput_6ae1My education hasn’t been like that.  I had no idea that my taxi service would tutor me in homelessness, a sociological condition, a marginalized population that I’d only brushed up against minimally back in my college days. There’s no grading scale for learning new facets of compassion and no letter grades for living wide eyed in a hurting world.  We’ve never mastered the material and there’s no end date to the brokenness this side of heaven.

Maybe that’s actually the best education of all.  The kind that keeps you wondering, that takes you beyond yourself,  that offers you a broader snapshot of humanity and intermingles your story with it. There’s a whole lot of books at this library but it’s the people at the tables, the living, breathing pages of countless narratives that sparked my curiosity, touched my heart and taught me the most this semester.


(I wrote this article last May. I miss those mornings in the library and I’m grateful for the life learning I experienced.)

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