We, at Heading Home – an Albuquerque agency which seeks to make homelessness rare, short-lived and non-recurring (see www.headinghome.org), recently met as a staff to discuss our culture. One of the most powerful moments in that presentation was the spoken awareness that working to end homelessness, and to be a solution to the suffering inherent in homelessness, changes one. In other words, working to end homelessness day in and day out will change how one sees people experiencing homelessness and how once sees one’s self. The external work inspires also, internal work.
I have a friend who is an entertainer. She comforts me by saying that she still, after 30 years on stage, feels sick in the green room just before a performance. She loves her work but it never ceases to make her nervous. I am glad to hear that because I get anxious at times when encountering a person experiencing homelessness sitting at a stop sign with a cardboard sign. I avert my eyes. My hands get clammy.
I am not the only one. I know others who find it difficult to encounter people experiencing homelessness. Suffering of any kind is hard to see; hard to encounter with a person-to-person response. No longer do the judgements flare up in me. Just a tiny bit of education will shift me out of old prejudice – especially the etymological realities of the word. But still, the human being sitting in a cold night with a sign saying “help me please” …I mean what does one do? Yes, of course. I go on line and make a big gift to Heading Home – I invest philanthropy in the experts dealing with the solutions. Yes. But in that moment what do I do?
Earlier this week, on a cold New Mexican night, I was racing from the farm to my downtown pottery studio to make Christmas gifts for family and friends. I stopped for food at Church’s Fried Chicken (don’t judge…I LOVE their fried chicken) and then zipped back to the main road into town, planning to much on tenders as I drove. Immediately I was stopped at a light. It was a long light – remarkably long. And there, next to me was a 30ish-year-old man with a cardboard sign: “help me please?” He had wounds on his face and a parka halo-ing it with fake fur pulled tight like the character in Southpark. He looked so very, very heavily sad. I had no cash and was content with my awareness that my gift to Heading Home would, in a way, help. In a way.
I rolled down my window and saw that though the light was green, a truck was stalled…so we would be waiting for another cycle of the long red street lights on Rio Bravo (“agitated river”.) He came over to my open car window and simply stood there. He said nothing. Asked for nothing. His countenance was soft, hurt, strong, even resilient, brave. Goodness flowed from him like heat from a radiator. Someone had deeply hurt him. I opened my box of chicken tenders and said simply “Eat with me?” He reached his hand into the box and carefully took half of the tenders and one of the biscuits (Why were there two in there? Usually they provide only one.) Together we ate hot, tender, crispy chicken and warm, soft biscuits with honey. His eyes were locked onto my eyes with each bite and mine onto his. We did not speak, but we never took our eyes off each other as we ate together in the cold night.
The light changed and someone honked behind me. He said simply “Thank you.” I said “Thank you,” gave him a brochure about Heading Home’s work, suggested he call the shelter, and drove through the green light. It was not long before I had to pull over into a side street and sob my eyes out. I was not crying for him. I was just crying. I think it was the gift he gave me in exchange for the tenders. Tenderness, in whatever form, is a warm gift on a cold night.