How We Forgot the Homeless in America

by andrewcagle

Currently, I live in a community that runs rampant with poverty. The county of Kajo Keji, South Sudan, which sits just near the Ugandan border has weathered decades of civil war and years of LRA violence following that. As each year goes by, the people continue to show resilience as they bounce back from a history that left them at ground zero just a few years ago. Most modern conveniences like electricity and running water are luxuries that 99% of the population lacks. It takes several hours to find the closest paved road. At the same time, people no longer worry about starvation or lack of shelter. Almost everyone has a roof over their head and food to eat.

Today, a guest article on TomDispatch.com by Barbara Ehrenreich got my mind thinking about poverty back home in the US. The article dealt with the issue of homelessness, and I hadn’t really come across this as being a glaring issue in the community I live in. To be honest, during the last four months in South Sudan I haven’t seen many people “on the streets”. It’s not for a lack of noticing or ignorance, which seems to be the usual case in America. I asked one of my co-workers if they had homeless people here, “You know, people without a home who survive and live on the street”, I explained. The reply, “No, not really. Maybe sometimes you could see someone with mental problems, but I don’t think so.” Here in South Sudan, there are no government programs, no welfare, no shelters. In fact, currently the existence of government services is effectively zero. Somehow, families and communities have been able to care for those members with serious hardships. The way life is set up here is much different than in the US. The comparison certainly isn’t perfect, but maybe we can learn something from examining the issue of homelessness in the US.

It is an interesting thing to ponder. With the wealth and resources of the US, how we can have the amount of our population living outdoors, struggling to survive as we do. In the US, “approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year” according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. That’s about one in every one hundred people in the country. In talking to people here about America, it is hard for them to comprehend this. Many times, I have to explain in conversation with Africans that life in America isn’t always  as perfect as it may seem from afar. While a great nation, we still have our struggles.

About a year and a half ago, I wanted to learn more about what homeless people experienced. I was in school at Texas A&M and didn’t have the time to dive too in depth, but I decided to grasp as much as I could during spring break in 2010. The last weekend of my break from class, I asked a couple of friends to camp out with me in downtown Houston. Our goal was to spend a night and two days on the streets in order to experience and learn from Houston’s homeless population. Our plan was to travel downtown Saturday morning, spend Saturday night in Eleanor Tinsley Park, and attend the Church Under the Bridge on Sunday morning.

In Texas, Spring Break is normally a time to escape campus and enjoy the sun and warm weather. We figured we had missed the brunt of Texas winter weather, a dangerous and miserable time of the year for the homeless. During our drive from College Station to Houston, it became apparent that would not be the case. The rain we encountered as we arrived in Houston signaled the coming cold front that would occupy the city for the next few days. Our first stop in the city was a Goodwill store in Houston’s west side. We decided that if we were going to spend the night with others on the street, the least we could do is carry some extra clothing to give to anyone who might be lacking. With the back of my Honda CR-V filled with a tent, sleeping bags, food, and second hand jackets, we proceeded to Eleanor Tinsley Park, located next to I-45 downtown. I had done some Google maps research before leaving. The park was a ten minute walk from the heart of downtown, could offer “free” parking for my car, and provide a place to pitch a tent out of sight of police. I would pray that my car wouldn’t receive any tickets after hours that night.

This is one of the first things I learned about homelessness. Just because you don’t have a house or apartment to go home to at night, doesn’t mean other options are necessarily fair game or legal. Camping in city parks, or even sleeping there at night after hours is illegal in most cities. For homeless people who live out of their cars, most parking lots, even Wal-Mart, aren’t safe options either. Nevertheless we parked the car in one of the four spaces provided next to the park rules sign, and walked toward Main St. downtown. This is just one of the obstacles that the homeless have to hurdle in battling laws and ordnances that criminalize side effects of homelessness.

Since it was cold and still raining, we hopped on the virtually empty Metro light rail for shelter to wait out the wet weather. Metro tickets are $1.25, but fare cards are rarely checked. About half of the people seem to bother buying a fare card. Since I can afford the $1.25 and not the $500 fine, I opt for buying a ticket and receiving the $8.75 balance in coins. During our time riding the the single line rail system, we noticed it was also an option taken by some homeless individuals looking to escape the weather. One middle aged gentleman, in particular, sat by the door singing a newly released Bruno Mars tune to himself for most of the ride.

After the rain stopped, we arrived back at the center of downtown. By this point the temperatures were dropping close to 40 F. We went into a corner store to purchase some gloves. Our hands were freezing. Upon exiting the store we met a middle-aged hispanic woman in a wheelchair. For the purposes of this writing I will refer to her as Rose. Rose had one leg, and was homeless. We learned she was originally from Mexico and had family in Houston. My friend Phil, spoke Spanish and was able to help us communicate with Rose. She called him her Mexican brother. For Rose, family life wasn’t always safe, and her relatives didn’t seem interested in taking care of her for whatever reason. Here she was, on Main St., all alone. Her hands were freezing and she said she was hungry. We bought her some gloves and some food to last her a couple of days. As we stood outside, in the middle of Houston, we spent some time in conversation learning more about her and her life. Inevitably, she asked what three white college kids were doing hanging out in downtown. We told her we were camping in the park near downtown that night and wanted to show love to people on the streets in any way we could while we were here. We were able to share the gospel with her, and she professed that she was already Christian, but could use prayer. So, we were able to pray with her there on the street for different struggles in her life.

As we were there with Rose on Main St. a man approached us and began talk to one of my friends with us. He was clearly drunk, and possibly had mental issues. I went over to where he and Holland were talking. The man, Martin, kept asking us if we wanted to fight. After turning down his offer, he glanced down with a dejected look on his face. Confused by our reluctance to fight, he raised his hand, dripping with blood, and said “I’m bleeding, and it hurts.” We had no idea where the injury had come from, but was probably related to his previous question and unstable mannerisms. We returned inside the corner store and bought some bandages. After bandaging Martin’s hand, he thanked us and we began to talk. We learned, between the occasional return of offers to fight, that Martin suffered from paranoid Schizophrenia. He walked and talked with us as we continued through the downtown area.

At one point during our conversation, Martin broke down. He had asked us what we were doing and why we were here. We told him that we wanted to let people that society has forgotten know that God loves them, and learn about their lives. The words “God loves you” and “we love you” brought a sobering look to Martin’s face. He sat down and began to cry. No one had ever told him that. His next question was, “Why?” Much of it was his mental disease, but the fact that God could love him was so confusing. He told us over and over that he wasn’t good enough and that he had done a lot of bad things. Despite our explanations of grace, it was a truth he just couldn’t grasp that day, but it was still a start. After a while, we asked Martin if he had a place to go for the night. He said yes. He decided to go on his own way. We said goodbye.

Approaching nightfall, Rose was still with us. She told us she needed to go to the bathroom. The issue of where to relieve oneself isn’t a second thought for most of us, but it is a daily struggle for the homeless population. So far, we had found that we could go into the public restroom in the lobby of the Rice Hotel without much of anyone noticing. We surely couldn’t wheel a homeless woman in there without being kicked out. Rose directed us to a Burger King a few blocks away. The staff informed us the restroom was for customers only. We decided that this was a good opportunity to get some quick food and buy Rose the use of their restroom. While residing downtown that weekend, I came face to face with the issue of finding somewhere to use the bathroom. Most public restrooms are in locations only open to the patrons of said restaurant or hotel. For someone like myself, who wasn’t dirty, unshaven, and traveling with the totality of my material possessions, things weren’t as hard. I still found myself trying to skirt security multiple times that weekend at the Rice Hotel. When you can’t find an accessible or legal public restroom, public urination becomes the reality for most homeless. The only problem with this, is that it is illegal. To simply relieve oneself in the only way possible, is to risk arrest or an unaffordable fine. If you are homeless, the payment becomes jail time. All for trying to survive.

After leaving Burger King, we asked Rose where she was spending the night. She was currently planning on sleeping in her chair, on Main St. Now that the weather was growing colder and the wind gusts added an extra bite to the thirty something degree temperatures, we invited her to spend the night with us. In walking under the I-45 overpass we noticed a group of homeless bedding down for the night. There were several people laying down cardboard and sleeping bags. I walked over and asked if anyone could use and extra jacket for the cold. A couple people said yes, so I ran over to my car to grab some of the clothing purchased earlier at Goodwill. The man I handed the clothes to thanked me and even asked if I needed any food. I told him I was fine, and asked about the selection process of where to stay for the night. He told me that the interstate overpass was a good place because it wasn’t heavily patrolled by police and offered shelter from the rain. The area where we were near Buffalo Bayou was sort of a concrete cathedral. The elevated highway offered a high and broad ceiling. It also hid them away from the view of the city folk going about their normal lives. I asked briefly about how he got by in the city. He was very calm, mature, and matter of fact in his demeanor and answers to my questions. He said that you learn, and you plug into the homeless community of the city. You learn which shelters and churches offer food on what days, and so on. If you can eat, and avoid street violence, you can get by. I thought of Martin, and hoped that people he encountered were merciful, or were at least declining the invitations to fight.

Holland had to leave us that evening to visit family. That night, Phil, Jeffrey (who joined us after arriving at IAH from Doha that afternoon), and I bundled up in my two-person tent in Eleanor Tinsley Park. Rose and her wheel-chair slept in my car. As the freezing wind whipped around our tent, I prayed that we wouldn’t become interests of any gang activity, or just as serious, police activity. Camping in a city park while a one-legged homeless woman sleeps in your car happens to be illegal.

Sunday morning, we woke up and proceeded to help Rose recover her Lonestar (food stamp) card that a relative had apparently borrowed and kept. The morning consisted of us driving to project housing in Northeast Houston, where myself and Phil knocked on various doors trying to recover Rose’s most viable source of food security. Unfortunately, we didn’t find it. Even if we did find her relative, why would he or she hand it over to two random college kids requesting it on behalf of a homeless relative. It was worth a shot though. Before going to church that morning we dropped Rose off at the Fish and Loaves shelter on the South side of Houston near highway 59. A large portion of Houston’s homeless population resides a couple blocks away from where we attend Astros and Rockets sporting events. The Catholic run day shelter is known by almost all of the city’s homeless population. From there we spend our Sunday morning worship with the homeless congregation of 1000 Hills Ministry in Southwest Houston. The church meets under a highway overpass and has raised enough money over the years from its homeless members to fund church planting missions in Latin America.

However short the experience, the lessons learned were deep. It doesn’t take long to grasp an idea of the issues that the homeless deal with in America. What struck me the most was the invisibility. When someone is homeless, they are invisible. It doesn’t take much effort to find a homeless person in Houston. Yet the people we talked to seemed surprised and shocked we stopped and asked to learn about their lives. That just doesn’t happen. Whether we have trained ourselves not to notice, or because we consciously choose to ignore, we pass by the have-nots of society as if they are invisible people. There has become this segregation of people we will and will not associate with. Homeless people don’t fit into our normal pattern of life.

To seriously look at addressing the issue means to consider the possibility of radically disrupting our lives. It’s easy to give money or donate food. The real question we have to ask ourselves is this: “Am I ready to be that person’s friend?” Are we ready as a society, as families, as the Church, to integrate this population into the way we do life? What would happen if they became visible? Would I invite them into my home for a meal? It doesn’t take much to show someone genuine love. People don’t just need food or shelter. What they really need in the midst of all this is knowing that they belong. No one wants to feel like an outcast. Unfortunately, that weekend, that’s what I saw. More than anything, the Martin’s of the world want to know they are truly loved. The Rose’s just want someone to listen to their stories instead of walk by.

In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…”. Following that statement, he says this, “And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” So, my question is, “What is it going to take to change?” I direct this question at myself first, at the Church second, and at the rest of society third. It’s not a tough question to answer, but it is a tough answer to implement.

Writer’s note:

If you want to gain an eye opening insight into the world of our nation’s homeless and poor, I suggest you check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s best seller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. In her book she tackles the question of “How can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour?”