Don't Look at Me Today
Don't look at me today, I am invisible
Do you see my poverty?
Poof, wish granted
Can you see the shame?
Of a greasy cardboard sign out your window; 'anything helps' while you shuttle comforts
To your home in the back of a green car from a red circle
Fuck your order and comfort
I am here, an uncomfortable failure two feet from your toasted oat vanilla shaken espresso
A weed, a roach, a leech; round us up, raid us, and salt us in the sun
Make me disappear like pizza and chocolate cake on a loved child's birthday
I am not that child anymore, so
Don't look at me today, I am invisible
And that is all you want to see
If I'm being honest there is a duality in my response to homelessness. On the one hand, my id rejects notions of pity and help in favor of harsh judgements: this is just learned helplessness; it's a result of your poor decisions. Why don't you just get a job like the rest of us? On other hand, my super-ego appeals to my faith and everything it calls me to do.
Prior to Covid-19 I volunteered once or twice a week at our local homeless shelter. It was a way I could give back to my community and work on the problem directly. The work was rewarding. I helped check-in folks each morning. The shelter offers warm meals, a place to receive mail, an intake for local, state, and federal needs based assistance and a base to plug into while looking for housing, medical care and a job. For a limited number of people there are also places to sleep at night.
You learn a lot of things working at a shelter:
People with homes take physical security for granted. It was not uncommon to place many weapons in our secure storage drawer. Knives, screw drivers, box cutters, etc. are all things participants held because they feared being attacked while they slept. It's hard to sleep when you are scared.
Without a government I.D., it's hard to get significant aid (even for homeless vets). Without an address it's almost impossible to get a government issued I.D. It's a problem and one of the biggest services the shelter provides; an address for participants to receive mail at.
Never underestimate the value to a good nights sleep. Beds were limited, so an 8 am check-in for hot breakfast meant that you saw people coming in that had slept on the streets and in the woods for days, weeks, or years. They were not well rested.
There are plenty of homeless people with jobs that simply can't afford housing; especially in California and other places where the cost of living is high. In these areas homelessness can lurk a couple of missed paychecks around the corner.
Homelessness runs the gamut from recently released prisoners (often with no family and difficulty getting a job) to battered women and children on the run from abusers; from rocket scientists (I met one) to recovering alcoholics.
In 2020 after C-19 mitigation measures kicked off in earnest, the shelter moved to full time staff only. I haven't volunteered there since. In the meantime, our local homeless population continued to climb. And as that population grew, so did my apathy. Why? I can't be for sure, but maybe because I no longer had any personal connection with anyone that lived on the streets and in the creek beds. During my time at the shelter I came to know quite a few of the folks beyond their name and would actually be able to say hi on a friendly basis if I saw them downtown. That's how I came to know Adrian, one of the best dressed and hardest working shoe shiners you'll ever run across. It's a lot easier to care for folks that you connect with.
We are part of a wonderful church in SLO that sincerely works to live out our faith in the community. A few weeks ago we discussed homelessness again and I realized I have a lot of heart work to do. I don't know what form my action will take, but I'm fairly sure it requires reconnecting with those that I've chosen to ignore; invisible in plain sight. Maybe I'll reconnect with the homeless shelter (think they are open to volunteers again). It could mean speaking with folks I see holding signs, giving them a small care package and telling them to hang in there. Or it could mean trying to execute a "Through our Eyes Project" locally with some help.
I don't have any illusions about homelessness going away anytime soon. But our community is committed to working on the problem in a meaningful way. It's time to reverse the direction I've drifted; to move from apathy to action. If 'anything helps' the first thing I will give is my vision; to pull back the invisibility I've cloaked those around me with and see them through the eyes of my faith. A group of friends put together some care packages for the homeless last year. Ironically, in our move to a new home last year they got lost in the shuffle and put on a shelf in the garage. I discovered them again last week and loaded them up in my car. It doesn't take a great deal of effort to open your window and give an encouraging word and some socks, but it does mean you have to see those in need. I think I'm ready to start looking again. If you quit looking I hope you'll join me.