It has stopped raining today (This posting began on Sunday November 25, 2007.). Yeah, it was raw and rainy. Now it is just raw. Before the rain came, it had been bitter cold at night for 3 days, with strong winds. When the weather is cold raw, rainy, my consciousness is automatically drawn to the men, women, and children, who are homeless on the streets.
You see, I have found that if one is still present "consciously" in an embodied state of homelessness, that one "fairs" better when the weather is nicer, in the hell called homelessness.
Ultima Thule - New Orleans
In one city out of hundreds in this nation, on this planet - New Orleans - our brothers and sisters and their children who are homeless, are staying in shelters for the night, sleeping under the highways or sleeping on the street by the railroad tracks, their backs against the walls, with card board to protect them from the rain. Some of our homeless brothers and sisters will find rest in abandoned, rat infested, moldy houses made even more dangerous if someone with malice aforethought, has watched them go in alone, especially if they are women. Then there are the brothers and sisters who are staying in a place called "tent city" by city hall in New Orleans.
If you want to read up on "tent city" and homelessness in New Orleans:
Katrina Homeless Make Tent City Of Despair
Tents Time for the Homeless?
Homeless community shrinks when 88 are given places to live
On the Bottle, Off the Streets, Halfway There (New York Times)
As human beings there are three very basic bodily functions that must occur daily in order for the human body to survive.
2. Defecate and urinate
When one is homeless the first and second of the above list, are the most difficult to surmount daily. Surmount is an accurate work to use unless you have found a safe and secure place in which you can take care of these needs.
When it comes to eliminating bodily waste, you really can't conceive of how important this is until you have no home of your own. Being homeless does not mean you stop being human with very human needs, the homeless amongst us crave some level of routine and safety, to sleep most especially.
Finding somewhere to "be".
For as many humans beings there are, there are reasons for homelessness. There are people who prefer to live on the streets. Most times it is because they have to in order to survive in the best way they know how to survive. Ultimately, society expects that each of us take care of ourselves or society will determine how you will be taken care of.
Even the homeless seek a place to call their own. A street corner, a bench, a place in the woods at night, beside a wall on a desolate street, an abandoned house... To rest and have the illusion of safety for a few hours.
When you are homeless, there are hours of relentless "nothingness" - "emptiness" - "loneliness" and "presentness" to the hell you are living in - unless drugs and alcohol are a part of your homeless experience.
There is a certain homeless man I have in my mind's eye right now. Sometimes he is out in his favorite spot speaking with beings I cannot perceive. Sometimes he is sitting quietly in this very public space and looks out of it and very tired. Then sometimes, he is able to look me in the eye and in those brief moments we "see" each other. One day I offered him food from my car window, a snack I was eating, I offered to share it with him as he was looking at me after I nodded hello to him, as I was sitting at the intersection. With an enormous smile and light in his eyes he thanked me and said no, and then he blessed me.
I have never been to India but I have seen film footage and read that their homeless men, especially those who choose to do so for spiritual purposes are treated with reverence. In this country to be homeless is to be treated as dangerous and to be chased away from neighborhoods.
Compassion on your terms for the homeless and poor.
You don't have to do alot to help someone who is homeless. Sometimes just acknowledging their presence is one way to help that individual in the moment.
There are many who might disagree, yet I always try to carry one dollar bills and change on me (when I have money), to give to anyone I might encounter who may ask. I have said no on occasion, but it is rare. I ask myself always, "who am I to judge this person's life for the sake of a dollar or a few dollars?" Too often I have met people who don't have enough change to get on the bus or to eat or to get a pack of smokes. I don't smoke, I know it will kill you, so will homelessness, I have learned in the moment, to learn to be present to what the individual who has asked me for help needs, to get through the next thousand moments. Sometimes people will use the money I give them for alcohol, I sometimes wonder will this be their last drink? Will my act of kindness be one of many random acts that perhaps brought about a moment in time for them when they hit their bottom? Who knows, I would rather be on the side of taking such a risk.
I understand what it is like at night for the homeless and finding a "safe" place to sleep. I remember sleeping on what I thought was abandoned property and having someone come to do me harm "because" I was homeless and vulnerable to their malice. I know what it is like to be shamed and humiliated by others for being homeless. I know what it is like for people to look out the windows and decide whether to call the police on you for being homeless. I know what it is like to feel constantly exposed and unsafe. I know what it is like not to have your own toilet and wonder what convienence store or fast food chain wouldn't stop you from using their bathroom. I know what hunger from poverty is like. I know what it is like to have to choose between gas to get the car moving or food. I know what it is like to spend hours suffering and to want to do anything I could to help my brain and body to escape the relentlessness of the living hell called homelessness.
These and thousands of other reasons gleaned through personal experience with homelessness and poverty inform my heart and mind to those who continue to suffer.
So if you are in New Orleans, and you want to help, in real-time, think about stopping by "tent city" by city hall. Bring packs of warm socks with you, inexpensive gloves, scarves, knit caps or something called HotHands which you can find in the camping section of Walmart. When someone is panhandling and it is raining, offer them your umbrella and some food if you don't want to give money.
Now that the weather is getting colder: the people down in "tent city" in the park by city hall, might appreciate your dropping by with:
If you and some friends feel up to the task - bring contractor bags (and plastic gloves) and just pick up the trash, be mindful about picking up clothes on the ground. You can create a pile to put stray clothing.
As you move around "tent city" make sure you say hello to those who are watching you and if people approach let them know that you wanted to come down and lend a hand. Because in the end, that is the most precious gift that we can bring to each other..."Seeing each other". Honouring the humanity within each of us no matter the circumstances we find each other in. I find it is best to go in the late afternoon around 4-4:30 before it gets dark. If you decide on picking up trash - I would go earlier in the day. Bring plastic gloves! And be prepared to deal with strong smells.
On giving person to person:
If your not comfortable with strangers or street smart, I would counsel you to be deliberate in how you choose to help.
My experiences when going to tent city: I keep in mind that when walk in to tent city within a few moments I will probably find that I am approached by the unofficial "protectors" of the area.
It seems that these individuals have taken on the task of watching over the area and each other in the park area. I have found that if I am present and aware of visible clues, these individuals will make themselves known, even ask if they can help. I try to always be mindful that this is where they live, they know who is a stranger and who is not. Sometimes no one will approach me and I move beyond my comfort zone and just walk around, making eye contact with whomever I meet. I walk around the perimeter first and then close to the tents, keeping a respectful distance remembering as the tent I am approaching is someones "home", I will usually go to areas where people are sitting outside their tents or sitting in a group.
I have consistently found each time I take a moment to help someone who is homeless, that many people are so grateful to be "seen" and remembered in their plight. There are a few angry personalities, as there are in any grouping settings. When I go into "tent city" I see acts of kindness which touch me deeply, I have seen people who are cold give away the Hot Hands I give to them to someone else who is even colder. I have seen the same occur with socks, someone came and asked me for a pair of socks and later I saw him giving them to someone else who was deeper into tent city, someone I might not have reached.
The people who live on the street "homeless" help me to remember my humanity. These are my brothers and sisters and my 'eye' is always aware of them when I am out driving or walking. Those who are homeless are living in very challenging circumstances at best. The smell alone of the urine is so overpowering and I wonder that they are not given the dignity of port-o-potties as this "tent city" was, according to stories I have read, set up by the police.
Someone asked me how to "help" someone who is homeless without being condescending - to even be thinking in this way tells me that this person strives to "be" compassionate.
What I appreciated when I was homeless is what every human appreciates - being looked in the eye with dignity and a smile or with compassion, not pity. Sometimes you will meet people with serious mental illnesses who cannot make eye contact, you will"know them" when you see them. Often they will shy away from you.
When approaching someone who is homeless I always ask if either "they mind if I approach", or if I have something to share I might say as I am walking up to a group or an individual, "I have some socks (etc.) and was wondering if you could use some warm socks". I might, depending upon the individual and what I perceive to be their ability to socialize, say more or just walk away, as for some homeless folks, that is all the social contact that they want.
You will meet in 'tent city', some people who are uncommonly generous and others who seem hoardingly selfish, others who are just broken and discarded by our society. The goal as a brother or sister who seeks to love without judging - is to check your thoughts and inner judgements around any perceived behaviours. It is hard to understand with compassion what it is like to be homeless without being homeless and what happens to some behaviorally in such situations.
When approaching areas where people have no tents and only a mattress or are sleeping under a blanket (these individuals are so much more exposed) I stay a few feet away out of respect of their space and ask them (if they are making eye contact with me) if they would like what I are offering or if they would find the item helpful. Sometimes, these individuals do not want what you offer, or perhaps they unable to trust you to come over and take what you are offering. Whatever the reason I try to remember the person I am speaking with lives in "exposed" conditions all the time. These brothers and sisters have no privacy, sense of safety, or security.
The most profound lessons I learned in my years of suffering in Ultima Thule, is the power of eye contact, generosity, and unconditional love.