Look, Really Look…

My husband came home from work yesterday, and told me how he needed to talk about something he’d just witnessed...

First, a bit of background to better understand the situation.  Tom works in downtown Portland, Oregon. Each day, for ten years, he hurriedly walks by restaurants, events, homeless communities, bars, etc.  This is to get to work on time—or at the end of a full day to catch his train blocks away with only 3-5 minutes to spare. On this particular day, however, Tom’s meeting went longer than expected.  Realizing he’d missed his regular train, Tom released the need to rush. With satchel in hand, he left his building taking in a few deliberate breaths to “let go” of his busy day. This also meant he could pay greater attention to his surroundings, looking at people—many, many kinds of people—people in shorts, business suits, tattooed people, exhausted people… all types of people.

Okay, this is where his story gets real.  You can either stop reading now---as the rest of my blog may make you uncomfortable.  Or, you can be willing to experience an array of feelings, as he (and I) certainly did!  That’s the purpose of this blog--to invite you to explore a topic that may make you question your current views; deepen your compassion; change your thinking/behaviors, or heighten your sensitivity to the way you live your life.

Back to the streets of Portland…

As Tom passed by a third ‘homeless camp,’ something stopped him in his tracks.  It wasn’t anything dramatic or unusual. In fact, the ususal was what made it uncomfortable.  He paused. He paused to look---really look, at what he had walked past hundreds of times before. This time, he viewed it differently.  He looked at the different tents/lean two’s/cardboard structures; ages of people scattered about, leaning against building walls or sign posts; multiple grocery carts; trash scattered along curb gutters and sidewalks; a couple of mangy-looking dogs sniffing at the ground; an industrial-sized dumpster, and one “bum” who was stretched across it. That “bum” was using an ‘extension-reaching claw’ to sort through dumpster trash.  It was at that very moment Tom stood transfixed. He watched this same person repeatedly grab crumbled sandwich papers. He observed the man methodically chewing on any hardened (or wilted) leftovers he’d discovered. Then, unlike many people, Tom turned his observations inward to examine what he was feeling...  

Overcome with incredible emotions of disgust, compassion, judgment, and a profound sense of helplessness, Tom’s inner struggle lasted several minutes…l-o-o-o-o-n-n-n-g-g minutes.  (In my opinion, his introspection required a courage that most of us aren’t willing to invest in generally, because the enormity of the homeless topic can be, ironically, so “debilitating).

At some point, Tom sensed that he might be ‘putting himself at risk’ by standing at the entrance of this alley, where crimes probably occur—day or night.  Assailants could be people walking by, but would more likely be those in dire need struggling to make ends meet. He recognized that there were not may onlookers in case he needed help. [Additionally, I wonder if Tom realized that by stopping to observe this scene, he risked the likelihood of being “hit up” for money?]  Perhaps, he could be confronted, harassed or robbed by people coming out of or going into the alleyway—aka the homeless neighborhood? Unfortunately, the request for money, not to mention our fear-driven stereotypes, has taught us to react this way.  

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I don’t know about you, but passing by a homeless person/community makes me feel so awkward!  I feel a gut-wrenching dichotomy between: helping someone who is clearly in need, or keeping my money for myself.  “Afterall, I need money too, worked hard for it, as well as don’t want to promote begging for a job--especially if they’ll buy pot, meth,’ or alcohol?”  So many thoughts, assumptions and judgment. Only then am I left to confront my nagging guilt as I head home to my warm, clean place, with weekly garbage pickup, a shower, refrigerator, televisions, toilets and freshly laundered towels.  How quickly we take these for granted! I hate the variety of feelings I have to wrestle with, simply because I opened my heart and saw momentarily. It would be so much easier not to feel plagued by the uncomfortable ghosts who reside on our streets!  I digress.

Tom was now painfully aware of “the bum” who continued to search for resources.  Truly, this “bum” is like everyone else. He needs to breathe, eat, sleep, and drink—just like the rest of us.  He has a unique story about his life that deserves to be heard. He is somebody’s son, brother, father, friend or uncle...  When did he/they disappoint society so much that his name became “bum?”  When did he/they deserve to sit out in the elements of blistering cold, humid sun, soaking rain, or rat-infested nights?  How did he/they make such a horrendous mistake, or demonstrate such frail humanness, that he should go without a shower, shelter or meal, perhaps for days?  Even more explicitly, when did our world--“humanKind”--give up so quickly on him, deeming him a ghost, or a societal annoyance? What about the families that no longer had a choice, but to live on the streets; lose everything they had worked for?  When did it become “okay” to forgot our war veterans or traumatized soldiers, or the people with untreated mental health or drug issues?  What part of our heart no longer sees: the children, so many children; the elderly who couldn’t handle skyrocketing costs on fixed incomes; people with catastrophic healthcare challenges… shall I go on?  

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Yet, the very onslaught of Tom’s overwhelming compassion made him stand firmly in place, something very contrary to what our psyche wants to do.

As if he hadn’t seen enough, right then, my husband watched as this same man hooked’ a soda can.  He placed his mouth on the dirty rim, tipping it way back to reach a few quenching drops—the SAME can another person sipped from earlier, regardless if it was moments or months ago. He then gingerly placed that can into his bag, in order to raise recycling cents.  By the way, the term “bum” is a crude, callused label that we’ve developed to instantly justify us in why this person isn’t worthy of our time, emotion or effort.) Dear, dear God…who should ever live like that—either by “choice” or by circumstance? Maybe we are the true “bums?” We, “the” people…wha?    

That’s when things began occurring to Tom…

What inside of us needs to dismiss him/them, walking away ne’er giving him/them another thought?  The time has finally come for us to have greater spiritual accountability; hard-core dialogues; heightened sensitivity, and taking more-informed action.  First, in how we think about the topic of “bums,” and dismissing uncomfortable people or topics. We cannot say that ‘we are the most intelligent creature on the planet’ if we, in fact, are willing to feed stereotypes, negativity, numbness, or dismiss this epidemic-- as we physically step over human beings lying on the sidewalk.  Folks, now is the time to make ourselves uncomfortable; stop turning a blind eye; feeling stereotypical judgments; abhorrent disgust or fear towards others. That isn’t working!  Instead, we must work to alter our suppressed collective consciousness. Perhaps, our lack of caring and education has directly contributed to our ever-growing homeless tragedy!   As long as we tolerate somebody’s son or daughter to endure deplorable living conditions, we should not consider ourselves kind or humane. The situation demands drastic changes—not just giving a dollar or two then, forgetfully looking away. Instead, we must look at the part we contribute to as individuals, as a society, as a world--unprepared, desensitized, confused, numbed out, in a hurry, and disturbed.  It’s time we examine the helplessness we feel of our shadow nature, and how “we” ALL got here together.

When Tom arrived home, his heart was totally wide open. His tears flowed, as he said, “He is somebody’s son, Debbie. It’s time we look, really look!”