There but by the Grace of God…
I thought of a quote my mom used to say whenever she saw someone less fortunate…”There, but by the grace of God go I.” It flashed through my mind early this morning as Dan and I pulled up to the Downtown YMCA for his yoga class. A group of four young women ran past us on the sidewalk in brightly colored workout gear and bouncing ponytails, and as they crossed the street, they ran past two homeless women sitting on the curb, smoking cigarettes in the early morning light. Quite a disparity between the two groups of women; the runners who came from comfortable homes, and the homeless women who spent the night out on the streets of Birmingham. The church by the YMCA is also a women’s shelter, but they have strict and necessary curfews, and if you miss the check-in time, you are out of luck. The women come from all walks of life, many with small children, often escaping abusive situations.
There are so many homeless people in Birmingham, especially after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina- many people came here and stayed. We pass them on the streets as we go to lunch; some have a haunted look, carrying all of their belongings with them. Some are belligerent, panhandling everyone who walks by. It’s so easy to judge them and say, “Oh, they just want money for drugs and alcohol. They need to get a job!” Sometimes they are looking to escape through drugs and alcohol, but often, they truly are hungry and in need. I am not going to judge them- each person has a story that brought them to this place in their lives, and often it’s a story that could happen to any of us…maybe they got behind on their rent, it got out of control, and there they are, sleeping on the street. Once you are there, it’s not easy to escape. I have often wondered…what if?
There are several charitable organizations in place to feed and offer temporary shelter, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem of getting these people the help they need to get healthy, to get the training or education they need to get a job to get them off of the streets once and for all. There are many veterans, elderly, young people of every race. The homeless that make me the most sad are the old people. I see them walking with canes and walkers, and one woman who must be in her eighties, rides around Five Points in a motorized chair in all kinds of weather, her wrinkled face grim. I always make a point to speak to her…I wonder what her story is…what all of their stories are.
I am reminded to be grateful for my safe and loving home, for a soft bed to sleep in, for enough money to live comfortably. So many don’t have that. I think of my mother telling me never to judge them, because “you haven’t walked in their shoes, and it could happen to anyone.” In my youth it was so easy to see the homeless as aliens, not really a part of society. I know better now. They are real people just like you and me who hit hard times for any number of reasons. They aren’t perfect- I don’t know anyone who is. Many suffer from mental illness of varying degrees. Some are scammers, some are honestly in need. It’s hard to tell for sure, but somehow I think I can when I look in their eyes. And that’s important- to look in their eyes reminds you that they are human beings who are hurting.
When I first met Dan, he had befriended a black man who was confined to a wheelchair and had severely limited mobility. The man would charge his chair outside the YMCA, and his face would break into a huge smile when he spotted Dan. Dan would faithfully give the man $20, listen to his stories, and then give him a big hug. It meant the world to the man, who lived his life with most people hurrying past him, unwilling to make eye contact or recognize his existence in any way. I think of how soul-deadening that must be to be treated as a non-human. From that moment forward, I have done my best to speak to the homeless, look them in the eye. Yes, you have to be careful- just like with all people, some of the homeless can be dangerous, as they are desperate. You can be careful, but you can also be human, show compassion.
I don’t know what the solution to end homelessness is. All I can do now is support the organizations that are trying to help, give where I can, donate needed items, and treat those I encounter with respect and dignity. The need is overwhelming. When I see the old woman, I wonder if she is someone’s mother, and if so, if her children know how she is living. I know one of these days I won’t see her whiz past us as we walk to lunch. I can’t imagine the life that she, or any of the other homeless people live. I send them peace, and I vow not to judge them…there but by the grace of God go I.