There are so many faces and stories. I cannot forget any of them.
Last night I spoke to a man who has been homeless all of his life. He grew up on a “hippy bus” and followed the Rainbow Tribe. Now he says he’s getting too old and broken to carry a fifty pound pack so he has a light one but it doesn’t have room for a sleeping pad or even bag. He finds himself curled up against a wall just minutes from some of the most expensive homes in Oregon. “I don’t care. I been out here so long I don’t think I could even sleep inside on a bed. I’m so used to the stars tucking me in and the moon winking at me and that fresh breeze that comes in the middle of the night.” He says this while looking up at the night sky with a quiet smile on his aging face. He has wrinkles around his blue eyes and a beard and long, wavy hair. He’s a kind man. It shows in his careful phrasing.
His face changes from peace to a childlike joy when he tells me about how he used to follow the festivals. “I showed up with nothing and volunteered until someone fed me and gave me a spot to sleep. Then I’d immediately go to the kids and start asking for ingredients. One had bread, another peanut butter, someone else might have cooking oil. I’d make a stove right there and show the kids that by working together and thinking it through we could all stuff ourselves on deep fried peanut butter sandwiches. I loved teaching about how to work together and how to live without money.”
He says when he decided he couldn’t be part of society with its penchant for “greed, killing people we don’t know for resources and forcing people into slavery with wages so low they can never pull themselves out of being poor…” that he had to find a different way to live.
Now he does everything by barter. He’ll trade IT work or art for a meal or a fresh pair of socks, “freshies. We love the freshies.” or a tool he might need. Sometimes he trades weed. “It’s legal now but you can still use it almost the same as cash. One time I got my way into a grow and had a terrific year. Spent all the money I made in five months of total isolation in three months time. I have miner’s syndrome-that’s when you’re so used to being poor that if someone gives you money it’s gone right away. I’m not good with money and it’s not good with me.”
We spent hours talking. I was fascinated by his ability to get by with no money and to maintain concern for others and perspective. “I love teaching the young ones how to work together. There’s no need to fly a sign and sit there. You’ve got to make effort and have something to offer.”
I met a young woman, 27, the age of my own daughter living on a bus with seven little kids. She is married but her husband became sick and is hospitalized.
She is putting in heroic effort, daily.
She couldn’t work with no one to watch the kids so she managed to get a bus for them to live on. “There’s no way to cook or shower.” When I ask her biggest fear she tells me, “CPS.” She didn’t want recognizable photos of the children because she fears Child Protective Services will remove her children. They are poor. She worries that may be cause enough.
She watches them, she reads to them, they were playing together in the park on the day I found them, eating tangerines and drinking milk.
I cannot forget them or their troubles. They stay in my mind and I still hear the voices of the children and feel her exhaustion. How is it that I can find this family but not be able to help them?
They have a bigger bus in storage that she and her husband were fixing up. It’s a double deck bus with beds for the children, privacy, a book shelf and reading area and even a small kitchen and bathroom. She shows me pictures. “If I could just get it mechanically sound and finish it, we’d have a comfortable home. I could get my kids out of town. We wouldn’t have to drive around worried all the time.”
I put a plea out on social media. Nothing. No one asks for her contact information. How? How is it that we have money to see a sporting event but no change for this family?
Here is the thing: it’s overwhelming. We see these stories and feel helpless. We fold into ourselves and hope and pray we don’t catch this sad disease of deep poverty, we hope it doesn’t hit our kids and we try to forget. But what if we are more like the homeless man who shows kids the metaphor of working together with his small miracle of deep fried peanut butter sandwiches? What if we decide–I can’t help everyone but I can help this one? What if every person did that?
We would solve homelessness and even poverty.
It’s a societal problem but the solution is us–together but also on our own. You can offer a shower to a homeless person or a place to sleep in your shed or attic or somewhere, if you’re a mechanic you can fix a bus engine or a car, you can offer fresh socks, you can offer a smile and an ear. There is something you have. You can offer it. Looking away is not really possible anymore. The number of homeless people living in our communities is growing, cities are calling it an emergency and communities dub these homeless people as “economic refugees.” This is not going away and it is escalating.
In my travels so far to interview 200 plus homeless people I have found some discoveries:
- Homeless people are most often non violent nor aggressive, nor shy of strangers.
- There is a growing number of homeless people in three areas-women, people over 60, and black people.
- Homelessness is rising by up to 20% in west coast cities. Not addressing it is addressing it in the sense that the numbers rise and so also do the casualties.
- The rising cost of housing, some 11 million Americans spend 50% or more of their income on housing, and the lower rates of pay have created a greater financial disparity not dis-similar to the dust bowl days or the great depression.
- Most any one of us who are working people from average families have experienced or will experience homelessness at some time in our lives. We are a “paycheck” missed away from a street corner. Once you get there it is nearly impossible to get back into housing without assistance.
As I left my new friend, the sweet guy remembering his days of free teaching, I asked him if he’d be alright. “I really can’t leave if you’re not okay out here.” “I am okay out here. Don’t worry about me. But worry about the kids out here.”
I told him I do worry about them. All the time. I didn’t tell him how much. I didn’t tell him the family and those beautiful kids on the bus have my heart and mind and hope, I hope so hard, that they can capture that in someone else. Consider this blog a prayer, a wish, a meditation, an ask to anyone who can hear—please help that mommy and her kids. Please bring them peace and ease.
I am remembering what the mom said to me via text later on that day after I interviewed her, “Thanks for talking to me and listening. Thanks for caring about my life. It makes me care more. Thank you for saying I am strong. It makes me stronger.”
Let it be so.