Walk in My Shoes
It is an all too common sight these days across America, and especially in this otherwise beautiful city on the front range of the Rocky Mountains and home to Fort Carson: people in ragged, dirty clothes stand on busy street corners displaying sad messages drawn on pieces of cardboard boxes, such as “lost job, need money” or “will work for food” or, on the more creative side, “Be glad you aint walkin in my Shoes.” Most commonly, we read “Homeless.”
Regardless of whether or not they really are homeless, their conspicuous presence elicits a variety of emotional responses from us. Some of us are gripped by the gravity of their situation; especially in winter, it is painful to imagine a soul out there without shelter or hot food, and there is a sliver of guilt associated here, knowing that we take for granted so many things that others don’t have. (We may remind ourselves that there are shelters and food banks available for them, as well as a host of social workers who try, too often in vain, to help them re-calibrate their lives.)
Of course there are others among us who become indignant, feeling affronted by these shameless beggars. Some even get downright angry, disgusted by the indolence, the lack of ambition, the sloth. And there is still another group that hardly notices them, having become inured, or too self-absorbed, or oblivious to the reality that is on display in front of them. The homeless are as invisible as if they had already gone into a state of limbo.
Regardless of the different attitudes toward homelessness in America, the situation confronts us and demands our attention. Perhaps the best place to start is to consider the many different possible causes of an individual’s descent to this wretched state.
Certainly there are many who are indeed just plain lazy or incorrigible, not willing to exert themselves physically or mentally, and unable to take orders. They do not want to be accountable for any kind of schedule. Moreover, there may be an attitude of resistance to authority, along with a certain kind of envy or invidiousness regarding “regular” working people. Though not likely to have read Milton, they might agree that it is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
A very small population among the “homeless” are genuine in their rejection of social standards, and they marginalize themselves easily and naturally by surviving apart from the mainstream. They live in the mountains, hills, or deep woods where they are mostly self-sufficient. These reclusive individuals experience the perfectly free “state of nature” not bound to the social contract of the “civilized” world. We see them here in the city only in the most desperate of times – when they have run out of options and are faced with starvation.
What the two aforementioned groups have in common is that they have made a conscious choice in the matter. This charge is more difficult to make for a third group – the alcoholics and drug addicts who comprise a substantial portion of the homeless population. Of course it was their choice to go down that road in the first place. But for some there are extenuating circumstances, and it is certainly a hard row to hoe once one has developed a chemical dependency.
There are some who certainly have had no choice in the matter. Many homeless people are mentally incompetent to do much of anything. They are unable to read, write, or speak intelligently. Because they can’t communicate, they cannot find work, and instead find themselves taking refuge under bridges or in tent cities or cardboard communities. Still others suffer from various forms of mental illness. They don’t have the wherewithal to seek the medication that might correct their antisocial behavior. It’s impossible to know exactly how their senses process the world, but I imagine them in some semi-hallucinogenic state, surrounded by a slow-motion flurry of whizzing, blaring, and blurring as they negotiate the passageways through their separate reality.
Perhaps the saddest cases are those who have suffered from real-life trauma, such as an IED explosion, loss of love, failure in career, or severe physical injury. They have fallen into an abyss and are truly incapable of resurrecting any kind of hope for the future. They, like so many other homeless, must live in the moment, unconcerned with the passage time because they have no aspirations, no ambition, no sense of belonging.
Of course there is no realistic solution to this problem. Whether we see it as an eyesore or a heartache, America has never been a no-country-for-misfits. We are built on tolerance, diversity, and a sense of individualism. Moreover, our prevalent Christian principles tell us to help those in need.
But it also tells us that God helps those who help themselves. So, whether or not we, as individuals, decide to give a homeless person money is not the real issue. The important thing is that we try not to judge them by painting them all with the same broad brush, and that we consider giving a shout-out to those dedicated social workers who try to find solutions for them, one homeless person at a time.
Pete Howard works as an English teacher, a musician, a writer, and a house painter.