In my neighborhood, it is common to see homeless people from time to time. The grocery store where I shop is not filled with customers wearing the latest tennis shoes, the finest clothes, or who drive the nicest cars. Rather, the people who frequent this particular store are the poor of society.
I prefer shopping at this store, rather than the upscale market a few miles away, because the humility that I witness—that I feel—swaddles me in an aura of holiness. These are truly the poor in spirit.
A small river runs through the northern end of town. Along its banks, the city created a charming nature walk where residents can enjoy a leisurely stroll through the woods. These woods, however, serve another purpose; for many, it is their home.
I often take this route on my way to morning Mass, as I find that its contemplative surroundings free me from the stresses of life and help prepare me to receive the Blessed Sacrament.
Many mornings, I pass a homeless man, sleeping on one of the trail's benches. Usually, a jacket covers his face, as it gets chilly at night. Next to the bench lie his personal belongings and a bicycle—most likely given to him by some Good Samaritan.
I have run into him on occasion when he is awake. Though his face is worn and tired, he is always cheerful and talkative. It escapes me how he can be so jovial when he most likely knows not from where he will find his next meal—and I wonder about his story.
One morning, I found him sleeping, not on his usual bench, but curled up on a pad of cement at one of the lookout points. My heart ached for him and, because I am one-step away from a park bench myself, a feeling of frustration flooded through me at my inability to do anything to relieve his discomfort.
When I arrived at church, I felt a sense of urgency to notify the priest who was about to offer Mass. Raised on stories of St. Francis of Assisi and other benevolent saints, I was sure that this religious would come to his aid.
I envisioned him kneeling beside the poor man and lifting him up lovingly off the concrete, just like so many pictures that I have seen of the Good Samaritan. Expectation filled me. Perhaps he will invite the homeless man back to the rectory for a shower, give him a good meal, and maybe even give him some money for a place to stay for the night. "This is what religious do," I thought to myself.
When I informed the priest of the homeless man's plight, I expected—dare I say needed—the same display of heroic virtue taught to me so many years ago.
"Call the police," he said.
I fought a sense of disappointment and choleric rage at his words. Are not our religious supposed to be an icon of holiness? Were the stories which we were fed in Catholic school merely fairy tales?
As I pursued the matter with him further, urging him to at least give him some money for breakfast (for this particular religious lives more comfortably than many of his parishioners), he spoke those familiar words that I had heard so often before. My blood began to boil when he reminded me that you "don't give money to the homeless, because they will only spend it on alcohol or drugs."
I bit my tongue so hard that it is a wonder it did not fall out of my mouth. I had only two questions for this "religious": "How dare you?" and "Who do you think you are?"
And Jesus answering, said: A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, who also stripped him, and having wounded him went away, leaving him half dead. And it chanced, that a certain priest went down the same way: and seeing him, passed by. (1)
Society measures one's "success" by how much "stuff" he owns. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "successful" as "having gotten or achieved wealth, respect, or fame."
I would suggest that God never read the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
It is this false sense of pride in one's "stuff" that encourages the "successful" to make such stupid remarks. Those with a lot of "stuff" truly believe that their vast accumulation of worthless garbage is due to their own actions. They feel that they are "successful" because they did all the right things—took control of their lives.
What none of them realizes is that they did not accomplish this on their own. Is their wealth a gift from God? Possibly. More likely, however, is a reality that surpasses the limits of their understanding. The devil knows that he need only keep them attached to their "stuff" by continuing to add to the pile. Then, they will be his forever—literally.
It follows, then, that in their godless pride, they deduce that anyone who is homeless, is so because of his own doing. Surely, they are alcoholics or drug addicts and deserve their fate. "That could never happen to me," they think.
There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen; and feasted sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar, named Lazarus, who lay at his gate, full of sores, desiring to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, and no one did give him; moreover the dogs came, and licked his sores.
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. And the rich man also died: and he was buried in hell. And lifting up his eyes when he was in torments, he saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom:
And he cried, and said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, to cool my tongue: for I am tormented in this flame. And Abraham said to him: Son, remember that thou didst receive good things in thy lifetime, and likewise Lazareth evil things, but now he is comforted; and thou art tormented. (2)
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (3) reports that in 2012, there was an estimated 62,619 homeless Veterans on a single night in January in the United States. Knowing what liars (4) they are it would probably be safe to say that the number is probably much higher.
These men and women are not on the streets because they are drug addicts or alcoholics. They are homeless because they gave up their jobs to defend the freedom of the "stuff" people who pass them by each day with their noses up in the air.
On a 2011 Huffington Post blog, Mike Horvath (5) told his story. Horvath is not an alcoholic or drug addict, yet he found himself, one day, homeless.
This was all new to me. I had no homeless training. I had no clue how I was going to survive. Just six months earlier, I had a well-paying job in the television industry, overseeing syndicated programs like Wheel of Fortune. But now, I was the one who had suddenly landed on bankrupt. The irony was painful.
He goes on to describe the experience.
If you've never been homeless, it's tough to describe that first night sleeping on the street. The fear and disillusionment are almost paralyzing. You just go through the motions, but at the same time, you're beating yourself up for being in this situation. It is very surreal because no one ever thinks they will become homeless. No one.
I'll never forget my first night. All of a sudden and without warning, I found myself homeless in Koreatown near downtown Los Angeles. I was sober, but I had no money, no place to go and no one I could call for help. I was officially homeless.
When Rebecca (6) was 13, her mother brought a new boyfriend home who proceeded to rape her regularly and abuse her younger sisters.
He also used to beat Mum up and it was hell on earth. For about a year, I suffered through it but when I was fourteen I couldn't take it anymore, so I said to Mum "You have to get rid of this guy, either he goes, or I go." Mum chose him and I landed on the streets.
Initially I stayed with friends, and then slept with guys from the neighborhood to keep a roof over my head. Eventually I had to leave the suburbs for the city streets.
Sleeping in abandoned houses and buildings, I lived on the streets with other young people who were like me.
The cuts all up my arm are from slashing up. I slash myself to turn emotional pain into controllable physical pain. It's not usually to kill myself, just to help cope with the pain of the past.
I don't do it much, but if I'm having a shocker week I might just sit there and slash till I reach one hundred cuts.
In 2011, Roy Potter, along with Cougar Ridge Productions, created a documentary (7) about the homeless. Potter visited campsites in Virginia, Texas and surrounding areas to hear and record their stories.
In February of 2011, the morning after a single-digit cold night, he came across a campsite in Virginia and spoke with "Sam," one of the inhabitants of the camp. Sam was the only person in the camp who would speak to Potter, as most of the homeless not only carry the burden of day-to-day survival, but also the humiliation cast upon them by the self-righteous.
Though it may come as a surprise to many, Sam was neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic. In fact, he was a veteran who served in the US Army during the Iran hostage crisis.
The campsite in which Sam lived was more like a village. There were several veterans at the site, one to whom he referred as the "general" because he had been at the site the longest.
Also in the little village of tents was a woman in her late twenties, who recently lost her job.
Well, we've got a lady that's right here; she's new. She doesn't know anything about how to survive in a situation like this. This is her first time being homeless. We're teaching her how to survive out here in cold. She lost her job a few months ago. She wasn't married, she didn't have any kids, but she's never been camping before. So she doesn't know what she's doing and she's scared. She doesn't know where to go.
Sam and the other veterans used their military training to help the young woman adjust to her new surroundings. "So that's why we put the lady over here in this camp," Sam said, "because we put her here to keep warm, it's more stable and we can build on it and make it a lot warmer than it is. And we made her stay here as comfortable and—can I used the word 'dignifying'—so she feels comfortable here, and that's what I'm about."
He explained to Potter how he became homeless. He was employed in the construction industry, and when it "went downhill" as Sam put it, he lost his job. "So there are a lot of people in the construction industry that are homeless, as well," Sam said. "This is the first time I've been this destitute."
As he gave Potter a tour of the village, he explained about shelter and surviving during the cold winter.
The reason for shelter is for staying out of the weather, keeping dry, and keeping out of the wind. That's the basics for shelter.
It's not easy. If you don't know what you're doing, then you could die of hypothermia—especially with the temperatures that we have now. I don't know what the numbers are, every year at least a thousand people die in this country from hypothermia.
Sam attributed the extreme homeless situation on the government.
This country is not about the poor anymore. It's about the rich; the rich are the ones who are in power. That's not what the founding fathers wanted. The founding fathers wanted the average American to have politics for a short amount of time. And they don’t do that. You've got career politicians who made a name in business and wanted to pass laws so to benefit the rich.
And they steal from the poor. That's kind of like the anti-Robin Hood syndrome. They steal from the poor so that the rich can line their pockets. And that's one of the reasons why the homeless—I don't have any other word for it—hate today's government.
They're trying to survive and every time they try and get a leg up and start getting back on their feet, the government comes in and fines 'em—takes their money away and knocks 'em back on their—knocks 'em back off their feet.
Sam pointed out that the founding fathers wrote the Constitution for moral people, and that without morality, the Constitution is worthless. In his opinion, this country's morality as dropped further than it has been since World War II.
"People who are well off who don't have a clue what it's like to be homeless, turn away from it," Sam said, "because they don't want to see the pain in our eyes. They don't want to see the loss of dignity. But I'm telling you right now, you cannot lose your honor, you can always regain your dignity."
(1) Luke 10:30-32
(2) Luke 16:19-25