The Homeless Are Just People Without Permanent Homes

This is a follow-up to my last post “Drive-by People“, call it “No more driving by”. Scroll to the end to see my “Buy a Book, Save a Foot” idea.drive_by_people_3

I met Chris under the freeway on Jackson Street. A year ago, he could have been me. Middle 40’s, successful business owner, had a house on an acre of property east of Seattle, wife, two kids, dog. But when I met him he was living under the I-5 freeway on Jackson Street. Why? He told me. He was an alcoholic and that had ruined his first marriage. But he got sober. He built a life that worked. He built a family. He built a construction business. Then one day he injured his back working on a construction project. He was prescribed opiates for the pain and it triggered his addiction. When the prescription drugs ran out, Chris turned to heroin and cocaine.

When I met Chris he was months into a downward spiral. I noticed he had two large, dark scabs peeling from his cheeks. I thought he might have fallen or been in a fight. I asked him what the scabs were from. The reality was far worse than I could have imagined: the cocaine Chris was still doing was laced with a veterinary drug–levamisole, a pig, cattle and sheep de-wormer. It’s a common and terrible additive in much of the cocaine circulating these days. Levamisole causes the skin of the face to begin rotting away and that’s what was happening to Chris. He knew it, he hated it, he wanted to stop doing the drug that was causing it. “But,” he said, “I know I won’t if I don’t get help.” He told us he had an appointment at a treatment facility in Renton the next day. He was worried he would sleep too long and miss his bus to Renton. He knew which bus to take, just not if he would be on it.

I was with a group from Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission rescue van program. A week after we met Chris, a couple of the others in my group called the Renton treatment facility to see if Chris had made it there. They had no record of his arrival. The group members went back to the spot under I-5 where we’d met Chris, but they never found him.

In my first post about drive-by people, I admitted I was annoyed by the presence of so many homeless because I didn’t know what to do about theDriveby_people problem. Since then I’ve decided the most important thing I can do about the problem is to stop judging it from the outside and, instead, get inside of it. My friend Larry Snyder (author, charity auctioneer, philanthropist extraordinaire) invited me to go with him on the Union Gospel Mission rescue van. I went. I’ve been multiple times since. I’m going out again tonight.  What I’ve learned is that the problem is huge, but it looks bigger from the outside when I’m doing nothing. On the inside of the problem are people who are suffering. People who need. They need supplies–dry socks, clean underwear, toothbrushes, gloves, hats, blankets. They need food. They need shelter. They need a system that better supports them. Many of them need drug treatment and they know it. They need a lot of things. But most importantly, they need three things: 1) They need compassion, just as we all do. 2) They need the experience of being treated like people–you don’t have to give them money, give them a moment of your time and a “hello, what is your name?” 3) They need us to not give up.

No one person can solve the problem and even collectively street-level action is not going to reverse the tide. But we individuals can ease suffering and though the individual action is small, it is important

*****

Buy a Book, Save a Foot

Here’s what I’m doing right now:

The first time I went out on the van I was amazed to see that, yes, the people were happy to get some food, and a warm drink and a blanket. Those things got them excited and it didn’t surprise me. Something else that got them excited and was a big surprise to me was socks and underwear. I thought about it afterwards and realized it shouldn’t surprise me. Of course! If you’re cold, wet and dirty from the skin out it just compounds your suffering. colorstoriesfinalcover2016_irontwinepress_300dpiUndergarments are often overlooked when we’re thinking about what needs we can address. And I’ve heard it said since that first outing that, when you’re homeless, “if your feet go, you’re in really big trouble.”

I have a publishing company, Iron Twine Press. We’ve just released a new book: Color Stories: the Short Fiction Coloring Book. It’s a lot of fun, this new book. Thirty-two flash fiction stories paired with coloring pages inspired by the stories themselves. It’s the coloring book for lovers of story, the story collection for lovers of coloring books. You can find it on Amazon and Elliott Bay Book Company and read more about it on the Iron Twine Press site.

From today until the end of the year $1 from the purchase of each copy of Color Stories will be used to buy new socks and underwear which Iron Twine Press will then donate to The MORELove Project for Seattle’s Homeless. This organization directly supports the Union Gospel Mission rescue van program and can get the supplies to the people who need them. I know, socks and underpants are funny…unless you don’t have them when you need them, then they’re kind of serious.

This is just a first step. In January 2017, I’ll assess how this is going and either continue it or try something else.

Please consider buying a copy of Color Stories. And even if you don’t buy one, please spread the word about this, lets see how big an impact we can make together. If you do get a copy, I know you’ll enjoy the book and you’ll have the added enjoyment of knowing that you’re helping ease a little of the suffering around us.

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Drive-by People

drive_by_people_5I call them drive-by people because that’s what I do. I drive by them, unsure of how to help or even if I should at the individual level.

They stand at all the freeway off-ramps in my neighborhood with cardboard signs. They haven’t always been there, but they are now. Evidence, I assume, of the growing humanitarian crisis in Seattle and King County: the Homelessness Epidemic.

One man sits all day at the exit from the Starbucks parking lot. He has a large backpack and a few plastic bags; I don’t know where he goes at night. I’ve seen him decanting cans of Coors Light into a Nalgene bottle. I’ve seen him asleep in the planter bed next to the sidewalk. Yes, I admit, I am made nervous by his presence. If that was me in the situation he’s in, I would want people to see me as more than homeless, I would want them to treat me with humanity and not to be nervous. But they would be nervous, despite themselves, just as I am. The visible fraying of social fabric puts a person on guard.

At the grocery store, yesterday, as I was waiting for the light to turn green so I could leave the parking lot, I watched an old man in a dirty winter coat standing at the curb with a cardboard sign declaring that he was a homeless veteran and anything would help. Behind him another man wearing several sweatshirts, two stocking caps and sitting in a wheelchair berated him. I don’t know why. Had I stumbled on a turf war of some kind?

Driveby_peopleIn Woodinville, the upscale, Washington-wine-country, shopping village not far from my home, there is one man I have seen many times. He paces back and forth along a 20-yard stretch of sidewalk at the stoplight next to the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant across from the athletic fields. One day when I was at the fields to watch my 8-year-old son play a Little League baseball game, I watched the man from across the street. He walked as though his legs were broken, knees knocking together, ankles collapsed–to call it walking is to overstate it, it was more of a scuffing back and forth over that stretch of sidewalk next to the cars stopping at the light on their way to Top Foods, Panera, Ross Dress for Less, PetsMart, the movie theater, the wineries. Like all the drive-by people, he held a cardboard sign detailing his plight and his need for assistance.

No one gave him anything. He was pathetic. I don’t mean that as a put down or a rejection. I mean what the dictionary tells us pathetic means: “Adj.– Arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness.” I was moved to pity (strangely, I am hesitant to admit to you that I acted because of pity–we live in an age that, I fear, has politicized pity so that when it comes from the “wrong” groups or individuals it is seen not as an act of selfless compassion, but, too often, as an act of judgment, as an act of patriarchal imperialism…or maybe I’m making that up…but I don’t think so). So, anyway, I pitied the guy and I wanted to do something for him and I was standing there with my older son while the younger one played baseball and I knew my older son was watching the guy too and he could see that no one was helping and I wanted him to learn that, when you can help a person in need, you should. So I told him to come with me and headed across the street and approached the guy as he scuffed back toward the crosswalk.

His face had been ravaged by some skin disorder, a good portion of his nose was gone. He had a scraggly red beard. Under the beard his skin was red, flaking, looked infected. Honestly I thought the guy looked like he was probably going to keel over dead sometime in the next 30 minutes or so.drive_by_people_3

I do not know how to help homeless people, I’ll admit it. I want to help, but there are too many voices in my head debating what is the right and wrong thing to do — one group of voices says don’t question, just give. Whenever you can, wherever you can, these are the socialists in my head; another group of voices says don’t give money directly to the person on the street, they’ll use if for drugs or booze…they’re not really in need anyway, they’re faking to take advantage of your compassion or affluent guilt, these are the country-club Republicans in my head, I try to shut them up because they discourage compassion and I can feel they are one breath away from asking are there no poor houses, are there no prisons to handle the surplus population or from declaring Let them eat cake.

In this instance, I listened to the moderate in my head and I split the difference. I decided not to give the guy money, but I asked him if I could buy him some food from the Jack In the Box next to his sidewalk. He paused and thought about it for a few seconds and then said, “Maybe an egg and sausage breakfast croissant?”

I was surprised by that. So very specific. I wondered if maybe I wasn’t the first person to offer to buy him food at the Jack In the Box. My son and I went in. I bought him the croissant. We took it out and handed it to him. He said thank you and pushed it into the deep pocket of his oversized coat. He said thank you, but he didn’t act like I had done him much of a favor. I have to be careful that the pursuit of appreciation is not my reason for helping when I do.

“I don’t know if that was the right thing to do,” I said to my son as we walked back across the street. “But doing nothing didn’t feel right either.”

drive_by_people_2That was last spring. I’ve seen that same guy on the same street corner in Woodinville almost every week since. Others have come and gone, but he’s always there. I’ve wondered if there is a homeless camp somewhere in the trees at the edge of the Sammamish Bike Trail. I’ve wondered how even an affluent town like Woodinville can now have a problem with homelessness. Then last week I rode the bus into downtown Seattle–a 20 mile trip one way. I went to a business meeting and then I rode back. In the front seat of the bus heading out of downtown and winding its way 20 miles to the moneyed suburbs sat the man from the Jack In the Box corner. He wore the same oversized coat, his beard was scraggly still, his skin flaking and red. He held on his lap a plastic milk crate and on top of that his cardboard sign detailing his plight and his need for assistance. Does he commute? Maybe his strategy for survival is to go where the money is. My question is how do we get money–enough money–to go where he and others like him are? Clearly that’s not happening yet.

Homelessness is not something I’ve seen a lot of in my life. I’m naïve and sheltered. It’s always been at the periphery of my experience. If I went into the city, I encountered it, but I could always drive away from it, back to the suburbs and there I could stop thinking about it. And I did. But the suffering went on. Homelessness is spiking in this region and now the problem has grown to the point that the suffering is visible in neighborhoods where we used to think of it as someone else’s problem. I don’t yet know how best to help.

But doing nothing doesn’t feel right.

Mr. Rogers Helps Me Deal with Terror

What did you think when you heard about the terror attack in Paris today?

Did you react the way I did with anger? Did you feel what I felt: despite yourself— despite your better judgment, despite your expectations of yourself – a welling-up of hatred?

As soon as I opened my browser this morning and learned of the attack, I was exhausted, tired of thinking that this is the world we live in now. I knew I wanted to write something, I knew I had to say something even if only the birds and the rain would hear it.

I opened the Notes app on my phone and started typing what was on my mind in that moment. Here’s what I wrote, look at how full of Us/Them oversimplified thinking it is:

That’s it! I’m done. Done defending their culture.

Why do we have to be sensitive to their culture when their culture is murderous?

I’m not alone in that either. Look at the trending topic #Muslims on Twitter. Here are just four examples from that thread:

muslims_tweet_1

muslims_tweet_2

muslims_tweet_3

muslims_tweet_4

The worst of us can bring out the worst in us.

Seeing people giving voice to the hatred that I myself felt, made me realize pretty quickly how misguided that is. I took stock, I wrote this in my Notes app:

No. You can’t dismiss the whole culture because of the acts of a few. The culture is one thing. The crazy people who are inclined to defend the culture with murder are another and a separate thing.

And there are other voices on the #Muslims thread:

Muslims_5Muslims_6

It’s all so complex. So hard to know what to think or how to feel. Or is it? What if it’s as simple as this:

These are two bad people doing a bad thing.

The_Bad_1

But look at these people:

Helpers_1

And these people:

Helpers_2

And these people:

Helpers_3

These are thousands of good people doing good things. Standing up for good things. Standing up for the hurt among us. Standing up for all of us.

The worst of us brings out more good than bad.

Looking at these images of the good among us outnumbering the bad, I was reminded of what Mr. Rogers said. He was counseling on how to help children deal with images of tragedies on the news. He said to tell the children “When something bad happens, always look for the helpers.” When someone inflicts pain, look how many people come out to help ease that pain. Look at the helpers. “Because when you look at the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

So many helpers. So much good in the world. Even on a day like today. Still so much hope.