Ways of Seeing: Try seeing ‘the homeless’ as individuals

We lump them all together as “the homeless,” forgetting that they have names. They have parents and they were kids once. They have weathered hands and dreams and hearts. Each of them has a heart beating in their chest, just like you and me.
They’re problematic, the homeless.
But the problem with the homeless is not that they are in our way when we want to walk down the street, or that they smell or that they might have been drinking beer for breakfast. The problem with the homeless is that they are not invisible, as so many of us like to pretend. The problem with the homeless is that they are there, and in being there, in our communities, on our sidewalks, asking for money or a job, they force us to face something about ourselves.
Will we keep walking, in a hurry to get to work or to the meeting or the grocery store? Or, will we respond?
Of course the problem with the homeless is that there are not enough affordable places of shelter in this world, that there are not enough mental health counselors to help those who don’t have the means to make an office visit, that food is very expensive. These are community-level problems, societal issues, reflective of the disparity in our world between those who have more than they need and those who have nothing. These are large problems and there are angels among us who are working to solve these problems every day.
On a deeper, more profound level, however, the problem with the homeless is that they pose for us, every one of us, a question — will I pass by or will I help?
Most of us who are givers never actually come in contact with the receiver of our giving. We send money to the Red Cross in the aftermath of a hurricane; we put money in the collection plate in church on Sunday; we attend fundraising events for various charities; we sit on boards whose purpose is to serve those who need help, but seldom do we directly encounter the object of our charitable actions.
The homeless, however, are blocking the sidewalk when we’re trying to get to the restaurant. They’re sitting on the park bench and sleeping down by the lake. There are more of them every year, making it harder and harder for us to pretend that they’re not there. When winter comes they’re standing in the doorway of the store we need to enter. They are sleeping on the porches of our churches.
I was at the First Congregational Church in Burlington the other day, and when I came out I went over and sat down with the folks hanging out on the porch there. They had backpacks filled with their stuff, pieces of cardboard to sleep on. They told me their names, their stories, their struggles. I asked them where they were going to eat dinner that night and they pointed to the Salvation Army kitchen next door.
“What would you have if you could have anything for dinner tonight?” I asked one of the men sitting there.
“Venison,” he said.
Two blocks away, at the city grocery store, there weren’t enough parking spaces to accommodate all of the people who were asking themselves that question: “What do I want for dinner tonight?” and then buying it and taking it home.
It’s a little piece of freedom most of us take for granted.
I tracked down some venison and my mom, who is a much better cook than I, turned it into a delicious stew. I brought it to the people on the porch a few days later. They remembered my name. They asked me how I was doing and they shared the venison stew. They were kind to each other. They had good manners.
The problem with the homeless is, of course, that they are homeless. And that’s a very big problem. You and I can’t solve that today. But we can make stew and we can sit down and we can reach inside and find that place of our humanity and we can bring it forth and put it in contact with a person who is hungry, lonely, cold, homeless.
It starts from the most basic place of all: “Tell me your name.” The homeless are not a giant amoebic mass of addiction and violence. They might inspire fear, but not because they’re going to hurt us. Its because we are unwilling to help. That is the greatest thing to fear in this life, that we might choose to make the needs of the world nameless and invisible.
“Are you OK?”
“How can I help?”
Try it today. I promise it won’t hurt one bit.
Melissa O’Brien is the pastor of the Pawlet Community Church. She is a student at the Fordham School of Religion and Religious Education and in the summer she sells bouquets of flowers she grows in her gardens as Harriet Honeybee. She keeps a blog of her thoughts and experiences at melissaannobrien.com and hopes one day that someone will come up with a better word than “blog.”

Share this story:

More News
Sports Uncategorized

MAV girls’ lax nets two triumphs

The Mount Abraham-Vergennes cooperative girls’ lacrosse team moved over .500 with a pair o … (read more)

Op/Ed Uncategorized

Hector Vila: The boundaries of education

There is a wide boundary between the teacher and the student, found most profoundly in col … (read more)

Naylor & Breen Uncategorized

Naylor & Breen Request for Proposals

Naylor and Breen 042524 2×4.5 OCCC RFP

Share this story: