Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Experiencing homelessness

Last Friday, I sat down next to a guy I'll call Phil (even though that's not his real name).   We were both eating breakfast before a stint of serving even more breakfast at the local mission where I volunteer.  I was wearing my apron, hat, and red lanyard -- red signifying "volunteer".  Phil had his apron, hat, and green lanyard -- the color meant he was a resident there who had earned privileges and duties, and working the breakfast shift was apparently one of his duties. 

We struck up a conversation.  Phil asked me a bunch of questions: how long I'd been volunteering, why I volunteered, what I'd learned by doing this.  What did I learn about who homeless people are? he wanted to know.  Was there anything I'd discovered that surprised me?

I told him that my first surprise was the number of kids I'd met.  That kids in class with my own children, who looked like every other kid, were residents in this shelter.  Later, I'd learned how different the stories were of people who wound up here.  There were people who came here to escape something terrible elsewhere, people who had health issues that sidelined their ability to get decent jobs, . . . just so many stories.

Phil nodded his head and started telling me a bit about himself.  "I learned a lot myself", he told me.  "I had this picture of what homeless people are before I came here.  And now I'm a homeless person."

He stopped, and corrected himself. "No, I'm not a homeless person.  I'm currently experiencing homelessness. I am one of the lucky ones; when I'm done here, I have a home to go back to; a wife and a family. "   Phil told me that in the past few years he'd begun having addiction problems.  He tried a couple of different 30-day treatment options, but none of them worked.   Someone referred him here, and he entered the program they have here.

He's learned so much.  He's been surprised and grateful for grace, for warmth, for how much this place addresses the most central of his spiritual needs.   He told me he'd always thought that his job as a man was to provide financially for his family: he was a truck driver and brought home a good salary, and he thought that was his main responsibility, "even though my wife tried to tell me that wasn't enough.   But now I see she was right.  When I go back, I want to make that up to her.  I want to be a husband, and to be a father to my children -- even though they're grown, I want to be there for them." 

He paused, and then he said, "I know this is going to sound bad, sound wrong.  But I believe this addiction was something I needed to go through, to change my life for the better."   I told him I completely understood; there's a kind of a humility we need to learn, and that my husband often says "sometimes to learn humility, I had to be humiliated." 

Before the crush of guests pored in for the 6:45 a.m. breakfast, Phil and I both thanked each other for listening, for sharing.   This conversation has stuck with me all week.  The contrast with my own professional life is stark: right now the college where I work is dealing with budget issues, and coworkers of mine who earn more than Phil might ever have dreamed of are incensed over a potential decrease in our benefits (even as we're promised that our salaries will increase).  There is a place for righteous anger, but the line between righteous anger and entitlement is a thin one.   So I keep returning in my head to the gratitude that Phil has for unmerited grace.   He's grateful to be lifted up and taught by people who have no home, who are down on their luck, and grateful for a community of support.  He's experiencing homelessness, and it's not what he thought it would be.


  1. I don't know how you came to be such a kind, wise, compassionate person, but I've been reading your blog for many years and am continually in awe of you.

    1. Aww, thank you. [blush]. I'm a pretty lucky person to be able to have seen and lived the kind of life I have.