Great stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have a climactic finish, with a lesson. There are teachable moments, and memorable points.
This isn’t one of those stories. This is not a story that starts with “Once Upon A Time”, and ends with “and they lived happily ever after”.
But it is a story worth telling.
I was in State College this weekend . I saw a couple of homeless people there. I didn’t expect to see homelessness at Penn State. I don’t know why, but I didn’t.
This started a dialogue with my daughter about the first homeless person that I ever saw. It was in 1979, and I had just started college. There was a homeless man on Penn’s campus, who was well-known to the people who lived nearby. They called him “Vent Man”.
Not a very compassionate name.
I have no idea how many homeless people there are. Wikipedia says there are approximately 650,000 homeless people in the U.S. Whatever the number, it’s too many.
One of my friends recently told me a story about a local family, in his school system. The boy in this family had fleas. A social worker investigated, and learned that the family was living in a tent in the woods.
I hear some people say that homeless people choose to be that way. Half of the homeless are children. I don’t believe that any of those children want to be homeless.
There are probably as many causes of homelessness as any other social ailment. Some of the causes include lack of affordable housing, unemployment, mental illness (and de-institutionalization in the 1970s-1980s), substance abuse, PTSD…and that’s just a short list.
If you’re interested, there is a fascinating book about homelessness, called “Stuart: A Life Backwards”. The book is written in reverse chronological order, from the end of Stuart’s life, backwards to the beginning. I won’t ruin the end (or the beginning)- but it is a book worth a few hours of your time.
One of the things the book highlights is that homelessness is like a Gordian Knot- a complex problem that does not bend to simple solutions.
I try to help, where I can. Not just dropping money in a coffee cup, although I do that sometimes. I try to help individuals in my community with jobs, and transportation, when I can. “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”.
But it doesn’t seem to be enough.
The good news in our society is that we have a lot of freedom. I love that freedom. I love the obvious freedoms- freedom of speech, and press, and religion, and expression. I also love that we have the freedom to succeed. As individuals and as groups, we can achieve great things. The mix of [hard work and education and luck and opportunity] often results in great success and great joy.
The bad news is the same as the good news- that we have a lot of freedom. We have the freedom to fail. If the [hard work and education and luck and opportunity] doesn’t work out, or it isn’t available, then some of us fall on really hard times. Unimaginable times. While great success is possible, great failure is also possible. And the result is that some people experience really hard times.
I see some of those hard times.
I have not learned to tune it out. I see it, I feel it, and I want to do something about it.
Bruce Springsteen sang a song on his most recent album called “We Take Care of Our Own”. The song was meant to be ironic. What he was highlighting is that we don’t take care of our own.
We have become a society of “Haves” and “Have Nots”. I’m a Have. I recognize that, and I’m grateful for that. But that doesn’t mean that someone who has less than I do means less than I do.
I’ve had difficult times in my life. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had difficult times in their life. When I had difficult times, people didn’t give up on me, just because my life was difficult. My friends and family didn’t ignore me or throw me away when my life was difficult.
People are not disposable.