We see them – vagrants living on the streets, asking for handouts, and bumming rides. We judge them as runaways, addicts, alcoholics, or panhandlers. We rarely see little more than dirty clothes, mussed hair or the cardboard signs they carry. We might be bothered if we are stopped to hand them a crumpled up dollar bill from our wallets, or the considerate and those that think ahead, may have on hand a bag of toiletries and snacks or gift cards to local fast food joints. Then, their are the spiritually considerate that might hand them nothing more than a tract, with a word of encouragement. None of those things are wrong, exactly…but is it enough?
More and more people are finding themselves homeless and in abject poverty. Did you know that 633, 782 people in the United States experience homelessness on any given night? That is a lot of people. And whereas, some of those people have chosen it by choosing drugs over shelter, the majority of them are simply homeless due to bad circumstances and tough breaks. I was talking to a friend of mine who has been living on the streets off and on since she was fifteen, and she admitted that even in government or state funded shelters there is no sense of security or safety. In fact, within 48 hours of street life, they are solicited for sexual acts…if it takes that long. And, some choose it. Because if one sexual favor means the difference between sleeping in the alley way or paying a few dollars to sleep in a shelter, to them, it might be worth it. This then makes them prime candidates for trafficking, and their problems just got a whole lot worse.
I can’t imagine that choice, that feeling of fear and insecurity, the inability to really relax. But, being the thinker and imaginative soul that I am, I allowed myself a look at how easily that might happen to me and to my girls:
Right now we are doing quite well. My husband has a good job and provides for us well, but in one split second my husband could die, and without his thinking ahead to provide life insurance, within a few months we could go from middle class to homeless. That fast. When you consider that one third of his paycheck goes to mortgage and then the other two thirds go to feed and clothe us, that money will dwindle quickly. Just a couple of late payments or missed payments and rejected calls from collections agents, we could found our house foreclosed on, our savings stripped and left with no other choice but to take to the streets. For us, it would take months. For some, it would take weeks.
My friend I mentioned found herself on the streets when she was a teenager. Her mom was an alcoholic and her step dad was a pervert. One night she had a choice, she could roll over and give him what he wanted or she could hit the streets. With tears in her eyes and just enough clothes as would fit in an oversized bag, she chose the streets. She begged her mom to take her back, but her stepdad had already concocted a story that made her look like a whore and without the mental capacities to choose correctly, her mom refused her request. Her grandmother took her in for a while, but soon she passed away, and my sweet friend, again, was found to be helpless and homeless. She has not only been mugged multiple times, leaving her with a fear of having anything worth any value or money in any quantity, but she has been a witness to some of the most violent assaults that have forever left her fearful and haunted. Tragic. Perhaps even more tragic is she is one of thousands.
On one of our meetings, I took her to the food stamp office. You know, the place that so many look down on unable to see beyond the masses that take advantage of it? The truth is, it does provide help. But, after sitting down with an elderly man, eager for food and desperate for help, I realized it’s increasingly difficult for the uneducated, unadvancing, and illiterate. As I walked away 45 minutes later, no further in the process than when he asked, my heart hurt for him…what hope did he have? I remember one day while mentoring at a local charitable organization, a woman was sitting in a corner, deep in thought, heavily burdened. I placed my arm around her and asked what was wrong. With big, sad eyes she said, “My baby is getting made fun of.” She had all of my attention. “You don’t know what it’s like to have to choose between feeding my kids or washing their clothes… and lately all I can do is feed them.” She didn’t have to say any more. I know kids. I know their cruelties. But she was right, I didn’t understand her pain, not fully.
There is a flip side to poverty. Humanity. There aren’t just poor. They are people with fears, insecurities, and dreams. We dismiss them because we don’t know their stories, we don’t feel their pain. We judge them based on heresay and speculation and prejudice. They are humans with souls and hearts, and each one of them from the addict begging for the next hit to the struggling single mom has a story. But, that requires getting out of our comfort zone. Knowing those stories is more work than handing out a baggie or a tract or few dollars. Because, if you get to know them, you might see that they need more. They might let you in to that well-guarded untrusting heart of theirs, and then you will be compelled to do something.
What you can’t see this side of poverty, the side that we sit comfortably on with our cell phones and laptops with cold iced water in a glass, is that some of those “hopeless” souls know more about God and His love and provision then you and I will ever have to face. Some of them don’t have a clue about love, any love, or provision or hope or God. We can’t afford to ignore either of them – every soul deserves to be seen, even the unlovely. I once heard, “People aren’t unlovely because they are unlovable, but because they are unloved.” I wonder, the imaginative hopeful side of me, if there were more loving, would there be less poverty. It’s just a thought, but grounded in Christ and living out His example, love is abundance.
One of the most touching statements I have heard lately was from my mom whose heart for the hurting I inherited and who has lived out love to the less fortunate all my life. “I hurt for them. I would invite them into my house to stay in a heartbeat. In fact, maybe your dad and I will buy a trailer and set it up for just that reason.” I love her heart, and I would gladly contribute to that endeavor, and maybe we will, but we cannot house them all, feed them all, clothe them all, or help them all. None of us can save everyone, but all of us can do something – and it starts with loving them.