The summer after I graduated college, I interviewed for a job with a company that would play an instrumental role in my professional career. Fresh out of college, with no clue how to actually do the job of a Social Worker, I was given a job as a Liaison at the Psychiatric Emergency Room. It was my first intimate exposure to the homeless population, my first glimpse into the truth of their world instead of the perception I had formed in my own head.
For many people, when they hear the word “homeless,” their mind wanders to the man or women standing on the corner of the street asking for money. To most of us, that’s our only exposure to the homeless population and it gives us little insight into the story behind the people we encounter. If you’ve never taken the time to get to know someone who lives a life of homelessness, I’d encourage you to do so. For each person standing on the corner, sitting under a bridge, or squatting in an abandoned building, there lies a series of events that lead them to this place.
My time working with the homeless has taught me many things, but recently I’ve seen my clients with a new set of eyes. In addition to seeing what I can be doing to serve them and help them, I’ve been reminded of their strength, courage, determination, perseverance, and fearlessness.
The men and women living on the street have a resilience that makes me so honored to work along side such wonderful people. It is an incredible thing to witness.
I’d like to share some things with you that will give you a sneak peak into their world and hopefully help you see beyond just the cardboard sign they are holding as they vulnerably put themselves out there to ask for your help.
The homeless population continually face rejection.
There are several homeless shelters throughout the city of Dallas, each with their own rules. Some with an age requirement, others with a 7 day maximum, some who kick you out each morning make you wait in line again the next day. Many of the clients I work with always have a back up plan. They know that if they aren’t able to stay in “shelter A” for the night, they are fully prepared to walk to “shelter B” hoping to obtain a bed/mat for the night. They know there is always a chance they will get turned away, and they still push through to find a place to rest their head each night.
The homeless population uses what is available to them.
There are resources in the community that provide meals for the homeless community but if they miss the opportunity to eat, it could be hours before their next meal. Recently a client I work with told me if the weather is bad and he’s unable to panhandle to get enough money for food, he’s had to resort to digging through the trash cans just to find any piece of edible food to satisfy his hunger.
The homeless population does not become attached to “stuff,” they are minimalist.
To live on the streets, “stuff” is not your friend. Everything you own, you carry. You quickly begin to learn to rely only on necessities. Your backpack/duffle bag is the most important thing you own because without it, carrying everything becomes quite difficult. Just this week, I picked up a client from the hospital to find that the two bags he had the last time I saw him are now gone. I asked what happened and he explained his belongings were discarded by the shelter because he was admitted to the hospital. This man has only the shirt, pants and shoes he is wearing but smiled with joy as his face was met with the beaming light of the sunshine from the sky.
“Stuff” doesn’t matter to him.
The homeless population are gifted in the art of trade and barter.
I once had a client tell me about a 7-eleven clerk who was kind enough to make a deal with him. My client shared that sometimes churches and other organizations would provide water bottles, clothing, shoes, or miscellaneous items when they came through the shelter. My client explained that if he had everything he needed and couldn’t find anyone else who could use what he was given for free, the store clerk would allow him to trade a pair of pants or shoes for food/snacks for the week. As I listened to him speak, I was impressed with his creative ability to be resourceful with what he had. Having an extra pair of pants was a great thing, but ensuring he had nutrients for the week was far more important.
Never knowing when their next meal will be, the homeless use what is available to them to keep themselves alive. Unable to find shelter, they are creative in coming up with ways to keep themselves warm in the cold and dry in the rain. Without a car or money for a bus pass, they will walk for miles just to get a meal or use the computer to look for a job.
As I think about these men and women, I can’t help but be so proud of them. I can tell you without a doubt in my mind, I’m not sure how long I could be strong under those circumstances.