"Bob had told me that sleep is a luxury that homeless people do not have. "You can't ever sleep." Alec Valentine
Who are Jackson Homeless?
I have viewed homeless people for many years with a mixture of pity, questions, and fear. But I never truly researched the issue till recent weeks.
In addition to online research, I went out on the streets and interviewed (so far) four people: three men and a woman: let us call them Bob, Arny, Carl, and Donna.
With no way of checking out their stories, I have only their own accounts. A few themes emerge. One is that a single event seemed to propel them into homelessness. That event for three of the four could be called emotional rather than financial, physical, etc.
Around 50 years old, Bob's downfall began about 11 years ago when his wife died. Till then, he was married, owned a home, had a stable job, and they were raising his wife's daughter, whom he called "my daughter." The daughter works successfully as a nurse, but Bob seems never to have recovered.
Donna also pinpoints her husband's death 13 years ago as the beginning of her troubles. Her six children "were taken away from me" when she spent six and a half months in State Hospital for drug rehab.
Perhaps the most painful account was Arny's, who said his own father molested him twice, he repeated "twice," when he was six years old. "I actually left home between 15 and 16, but I haven't had a home since I was six."
Carl, age 40, has serious health issues which helped lead to his homelessness. When he was 14 years old, sinus damage caused breathing problems. Later, Carl was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at age 21. Both parents died of heart problems, and his two brothers, with whom he had lived, are now deceased. I could not follow the complicated account of his illnesses and the odyssey through doctors, clinics, hospitals, etc. He supported himself by working at Wal-Mart and nursing homes until four and a half years ago.
Health and self-care issues turn up frequently. Bob was in a wheelchair when I saw him on Ellis Avenue near I-20. He said he fell through an attic he had been in "hundreds of times" and broke a leg. Donna nodded off to sleep 12 times in the 15-20 minutes we talked. Drugs or sleeplessness? I wondered
Bob had told me that sleep is a luxury that homeless people do not have. "You can't ever sleep. Night is so scary 'cause you could get beaten, robbed, murdered, or raped. You don't dare go to sleep."
And this was a man talking.
I asked Donna if she had been taken advantage of sexually.
"Yes," she replied.
"How many times?" I asked. "I have no idea."
I have often heard, from people who live in shelters, that some people really don't want to live there because a shelter entails responsibility. One must be responsible to other housemates, the building or facility, and an income-producing job. I believe that story, but I haven't found it yet.
Instead, I thought I did see in each person's account some trace of their own complicity in their homeless condition. I noticed that Carl, a severely sick man, had some unnecessary friction with the woman who took his food order at McAllister's, where I took him for lunch after we talked. They obviously knew each other because they used first names. It reminded me of what he had said about why he has no cardiologist.
One heart doctor dismissed him as a patient, saying he needed to go to an even more specialized cardiologist. But Carl disagreed with the nurse helping him access the new doctor because she sent him through more diagnostic tests.
He balked, and the process ended there. Is this cantankerousness a result of his sick heart, or does it predate it? Is that why he's in such dire straits? Can some intervention help him work through it?
Bob has relatives in this area (mother and stepfather) who have some wealth. But he "would never let them see me this way" because "It would ruin the relationship." As it is, he hasn't spoken with them in years. Bob never uttered a word of blame toward anyone for his plight, but it did seem to me there were avenues of help, including medical, that he chose not to explore. Some counseling might help him see things differently.
Donna and her story seemed so pitiful that I could not figure out where to assign blame. Nor did she blame anyone. The same was true of Arny; that early trauma seems to have ruined his life up to the present moment. Can either of them be turned around?
Is it that only some can rise above misfortune while others seem permanently overcome by it?
And are that latter group "the least of these," whom Jesus urged us to treat as if they were Him?
If they did not take advantage of their opportunities, can we provide an intervention that will make a difference?
While all these questions filled my mind, it was also apparent: "There, but for the grace of God, go I." I thought of the many mistakes and bad choices I had made. How fortunate I am that I finally grabbed one of the lifelines thrown at me. Maybe the next lifeline that somebody throws will be the one that makes a difference and saves a life. "What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me."
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