People who walk city streets see homeless people; people who drive the same streets in cars don't always see them. As you brake and make the corner, talking on your cell, that garbage in the doorway, early in the morning, was there movement? Was there a person in the pile of stuff behind that shopping cart? Did the garbage move? You’re driving too fast to tell; you’re down the street now.
I sound superior, sanctimonious probably, like I think I know something. I don’t know anything. The homeless; I don’t know what to do. But as one who walks the city streets near my residential neighborhood in Sherman Oaks, California, I can at least see the problem. In other words, because I walk these streets I am able to determine that what many people see only as garbage in a doorway is, in fact, a person. That's all I mean. I see a damaged, weathered face looking up at me from a bedroll and recognize an entity that is connected to my species. And as I continue my walk I think, Once a child, had a puppy, birthday parties. Yes, I do.
Down the block now I think, What happened? For God’s sake, what happened to that child? And as I cross my street and walk through the door to my home I think, What should be done? I don’t know what to do. What in hell do we do? And at night, when I get into my bed, I think about the people sleeping on sidewalks. How hard it must be.
Three days ago I was walking on Ventura Boulevard early in the morning, one block from my home; and on the curb, in front of a hamburger stand, sat the filthiest human being I’ve ever seen. He was talking into space, enumerating something, counting on his fingers—sweet events before this time perhaps, members of his family he loved. His hair was so dirty that it was standing straight up. I couldn’t determine his ethnicity. Latino? And if so, I suppose he could have been illegal, but I wasn’t able to dismiss him out of that possibility.
Okay, if that’s bothersome, a few months ago I saw this white woman, Caucasian definitely, in her fifties probably. I was walking toward my private mail box down Ventura in Sherman Oaks, California; and I saw her setting up her little bedroll on the sidewalk, a shopping cart piled with her all her stuff nearby. She asked me for a cigarette, and I told her that I didn’t smoke but gave her some money. White hair, streaked with blonde—once blonde, I guess, now almost completely white. I happened to glance at her feet, and she was wearing gold slippers—gold slippers, I promise you. The only shoes that she could find? A recent prize from a dumpster? How she saw herself even as she lived on the street? Gold slippers.
I walked on to my mail box, picked up something useless that I had ordered, and walked back toward my apartment, this time on the opposite side of the street from where I had seen the homeless woman. And when I reached the block where I had seen her, I looked over to where she had been setting up her bedroll on the sidewalk, and she was now lying down, with a blanket pulled up under her chin. Her feet were sticking out from the other end of the blanket, and on those feet were her gold slippers, footwear for her dreams.
I stood there looking at her, and then I looked around me, up and down the sidewalk. I looked around for another pedestrian, somebody to talk to, so that I could point across the street to her and say, Look, look over there, you see that woman over there? Lying on the sidewalk? We should do something! See her? Shouldn’t we do something for God’s sake? What can we do? Look, she’s a human being for God’s sake. Sleeping on the sidewalk.
But there was no one near me, and I couldn’t think of anything to do.
I live in an apartment building one block south of Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, California on a street with condos that go for $800,000. I walk on Ventura for exercise and to pick up my mail at my private mail box. Seven blocks, about a mile. And on the days that I walk—four days a week—I usually encounter three or four homeless people. Some are panhandling, some just sitting staring into space—remembering a different life perhaps, members of their family, sweet events before this time. Three or four homeless people.
More formal numbers now from official agencies: “The overall homeless population in Los Angeles County at a given point in time is estimated to be 82,291. Regarding the homeless in families, 19,882.” Nationally, the best approximation is that 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, experience homelessness in a given year.*
What am I doing about it? Not enough. I’m not giving away enough money; I buy too much junk. I have a collection of fountain pens that cost me thousands of dollars. I’m always buying paper I don’t need; I love paper. I have Rhodia Paper from France and Amalfi Paper from Italy. I bought a fountain pen a few years back, the cost of which could feed a family of four for one month.
But all that walking on city streets is catching up with me and my junk. I think our family is going to have to start doing something with ten percent of our income; and we need to spend more time seeking out organizations that do good work. Like the The Midnight Mission of Los Angeles and nationally, Second Harvest. And, yes, I’ll continue to give money to homeless people that I see on the street, but beyond all that, what else can I do?
What’s the solution? What’s beyond the piecemeal? What’s the systemic solution? That man sitting on the curb, filthy, deranged. The woman with the gold slippers. And shamed, unseen hungry families. They came out of something. How were they derived? How can I contribute to a solution?
Maybe I should consider young minds and how they are shaped, put some money there, hope for the right shaping. The people of my generation haven’t done well with this problem; maybe I should look to the future. Maybe I should consider an ongoing gift to my old school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a Christian prep school. From their mission statement: “To manifest concern for the welfare of others” and “McCallie believes that its ongoing Christian tradition builds a strong moral foundation and a sense of civic and social duty.”
But at this point the demons of conflict and confusion strike and swirl around my old head. What was my Christian school doing when I was there in the fifties? Where was that ongoing Christian tradition? What were they doing about segregation?
But then I think, okay, people change and they learn, even schools learn, change with the times; and the school has changed. Look at the photos in the material they send me. There's diversity now; it's so good to see African-Americans at my old school.
And I must remember that when I was at that school I was learning important values from Christ’s teachings, even though the school wasn’t always practicing Christ’s teachings while I was there—segregation. Confusing; it's confusing. I said it was confusing.
And there's even more confusion. I'm not a believer, yet there are things that I still remember from my lessons at that school, Bible verses. Not a believer, and I remember Bible verses. So strange. I remember reading the Bible at that school, all of it, Old and New Testaments. Some of it must have helped me form my values. Life is confusing.
I know that there are good young men there now, becoming better young men from being there, establishing good values. I believe, have hope, that some of them might one day come to understand something about economic policy in the United States and how the market's vaunted “invisible hand,” no matter what else it might do, can slap poor people around, put them on the street. Perhaps some McCallie boys will try to do something about that; that's my hope. Maybe a few of them will remember what I have been unable to forget from my Bible reading at McCallie fifty years ago. I certainly hope so. You’re needed, boys. I believe in you. The homeless. You’re needed to help the homeless, the poor. I believe in you; don't forget:
Matthew 25, verses 35 through 40.
“For I was hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
22 September 2006
[24 September 2006
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