On my walk to work one morning to Family Promise (a shelter program in Coldwater, MI for homeless families and single women), I met a young man sitting on the sidewalk outside of a local bar where there was a bench. He was looking pretty tired, hunched over and clutching his hands together working a lighter in his fingers. His possessions were at his feet in two small plastic grocery bags.
He did not make eye contact until I said “Good Morning”.
His glance up and soft “good morning” back at me indicated a man who was low on any kind of life energy and barely able to lift his head. Used to being invisible, he did appear to be slightly surprised at my voice addressing him.
I stopped in front and began a typical introductory conversation with, “so, how are you doing this morning?”
His response was inaudible, so I introduced myself, “My name is Lauri. What is your name?”
At that point, he slowly lifted his head with what appeared to be much effort and very quietly said his name.
“I am sorry, I did not catch that”, I replied.
“James”, he said slightly louder.
“Well, good morning, James”, and I put my hand out to shake his hand in greeting.
He looked into my eyes, head shaking side to side with a slight tremor, he moved the lighter into his left hand and slowly extended his right hand. After contact, he looked back down at the ground and moved his shaky hand back into his other hand with the lighter.
After some talk about how he was doing (which he did not share more than one word answers) I wished him a good day and walked away.
People like James are not often used to being seen. It touches my heart when I notice this. How does it feel to be invisible? How complex are the lives of the people we refer to as “the poor” or “the homeless”?
Is it enough to “give them resources” when they hardly have the energy to shake a hand?
A very wise friend told me once that the flippant phrase “they need to pull themselves up by their boot straps: made her ponder…..
What if they didn’t have boots?
I wonder what would happen if we spent some time everyday really seeing those “unknown persons? How could focusing on their faces, their clothes, their hands and eyes and especially their voices change our perceptions?
Humanizing people is a practice we can do daily and it goes deeper than just throwing money in their cups of referring them to counseling – it is even more than finding them a home or feeding them.
I think it comes down to seeing deeply into the complexity that makes us all human.