Either we dwell in homes or we do not. Who is homeless; what is homelessness? Homeless is personal. Human beings, who for complex reasons as varied as they are, find themselves living on the streets, in abandoned buildings, in parked automobiles. Families huddle together under bridges, marking the moments of their despair without hope in a miserable no-man’s land. There seems no escape from their misery, no way to return home again or find the means to create a new home. Homelessness is a global policy issue with which we have had to grapple since the beginning of civilization. Refugees in makeshift camps, fleeing from civil wars, drug wars and immigration wars have always been part of the historical landscape. We know we must do better, but solutions do not come easily. Bridges, not walls. A great throwaway line, but how do we begin the construction and dismantling?
There but for the grace of God go I. God or no god, the wolves of hunger, poverty and displacement are not interested in our religious hair-splitting. We all see ourselves in the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and the wretched refuse washed up on every teeming shore. No one plans to be homeless; no one yearns to be. Yet, we see their faces on the news and wonder: what did they do or fail to do to find themselves in such a state? Then, we turn off the news feeds, get another cup of coffee and snuggle up with a good book. Someone should do something about this. Is it our own grace that allows us to be so dismissive?
No matter our culture, ideology, gender, ethnicity or age, we all recognize places that are not home. Yet, the resilient human spirit allows the homeless to call a place home even in the most inadequate shelters, where the most basic necessities are missing. Imagine waking up dirty, fearful, hungry and ashamed on sun-baked concrete, wrapped in sodden cardboard. No bathroom, no kitchen, no walls, no privacy. Imagine being so intimidated by constant bombings and the daily spectacle of the bloodied corpses of your neighbors, that no solution exists other than escape. This is reality for so many people, including infants, young children, the elderly and disabled. Refugees are so called because they had no choice but to search for new refuge. Many manage to relocate. Some manage to cling to low-paying jobs and get their children to school. We hear about them and wonder: If they possess that kind of tenacity, why can’t they get out of their situations? Our anxiety also causes us to wonder: Will my grace run out one day? Will I be forced to join the huddled, faceless masses?
Life-changing movements occur in everyone’s life. They unquestionably bring anticipation, uncertainty and a force that can strangle any hope we have in our uncertain futures. Tangible fear is a pestilence, an invasive species. A common weed, it thrives in any environment by turning on its host. Fear manifests itself into anger, bitterness, confusion and paralysis. When watered with self-doubt, fear assumes super-powers. It must be eradicated; it must be supplanted with something tougher. But when resources are depleted, where is the energy to plant, to nurture, to affect change?
Might hope be that tougher thing? Might empathy be another? Both have proven powerful enough to attack fear’s root system. Humans all have some inkling of what it’s like to run scared. Hope reminds us there are better destinations ahead. Empathy reminds us to walk a mile in another’s shoes, even when the other is barefoot. Both hope and empathy are vital provisions for journeying. Yet these tougher things are luxuries for the homeless, extravagances as hard to find as warm running water. Journeys take us away from home; when they end, we are usually returned to familiar doorsteps. However, not every journey is made in comfort nor planned for recreation and enjoyment. No authentic journey should bring us back unchanged either. Perhaps empathy and hope can lead us on journeys that will create familiar doorsteps for others. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity have supplied heretofore unmapped routes along which these tougher things can travel, yet someone still has to transport them. Perhaps grace is the suitcase and simple kindness is the ticket. Perhaps grace exists as the spark of divinity within us. A spark whispers; it seldom makes a spectacle of itself. Yet given oxygen and opportunity, sparks can create conflagrations.
So, is a turtle without its shell homeless or naked? The answer matters less to the turtle than its quest for shelter and food in its future. The answer should matter less to us than answering this simple question? What can I do to help it restore its shell?
Sometimes it’s easy to walk by because we know we can’t change someone’s whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize it that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.