Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Hope is real."

As a metro-Detroiter, it's hard not to be aware of homelessness. We live just North of the oh-so-infamous 8-Mile Road that narrowly divides "The D" from Metro-D. The 8-Mile and Woodward underpass is littered with the remains of those who've sought refuge from the streets...on the street. This year and last have been particularly cold winters with temperatures regularly hitting the negatives at night. At times it's hard to stay warm in our house, I can't imagine trying to sleep without a furnace and roof, even if it's under a mountain of generously donated gore-tex sleeping bags.

The past few years it seems there's been a boom in the amount of folks standing at busy street corners hoping for help from those willing to open their windows and give something in the moments before the light turns green. It's hard not to read signs that say things like, Homeless, family hungry, anything helps, without looking into one's soul to figure out what would actually help in this tiny opening between red and green.

If you asked me to imagine what homelessness looks like, without hesitance, I'd see Eugene. I don't remember the specifics around Eugene's situation, but my dad does. Eugene was his project, his faith through works, his attempt at turning the other cheek, at giving the shirt off his back, at walking the extra mile. Eugene stayed with us many nights over many years. I'd be pouring my cereal in the morning readying for school, and catch a whiff of his dense, musty alcohol and sweat, tip-toeing its way up from the basement. My parents would ask to wash his clothes while he showered, which he often declined, then after buying him a meal, my dad would drive him off to wherever he deemed his next destination. Every time he came through, for a moment, we'd wonder if this would be the final so-long. My dad likes to recall how he'd take Eugene to Burger King and every time without fail he'd comically order a "Whopper, heavy-all." Eventually we moved to Pennsylvania and prayed he'd be okay, wherever he was.

Growing up the son of a Pastor gave me many opportunities to witness the attempts of others to live the word, or practice what they preach. Specifically in regards to the homeless and hungry, many times we took people into our home or into the church to try and provide relief, if only for a night or two, hoping that our actions represented our faith and good intentions.

Last fall while eating in downtown Ferndale, we met Julia. After a double-take, as if we were long-lost friends, she greeted us through the window with an excited wave and jolly grin. She popped her head in and said to our table with a bit of a slur and a playful tone, "I'm hungry!" Not quite knowing what to do or say, fighting silence, I foolishly said "I bet you are!" She mumbled something that only a few of us could hear pieces of and walked off. As she left there was a heaviness in the air. We're a table of well-intentioned folks who have no reason, except the inconvenience of it, not to help someone who's hungry, but none of us seemed to know what was best to say or do in that moment. We were having a family dinner, toddler and guest in tow. We were in a restaurant that likely does not want to have their customers solicited from. It was complicated. None of us felt good about the interaction. Once we parceled together what she said, I felt an elephant snuggling up on my chest: "How can you be so nonchalant about my hunger?" We finished our meal and talked about the nuances of these situations. Dad and I agreed we were at fault, my off-color comment and his silence being the culprits. We walked across the street to where she was, introduced ourselves and apologized for our insensitivity, offering her the opportunity to order from the Chinese menu as we had. She said "It's no big deal," then asked if we'd be willing to get her some chicken wings and coffee from a different restaurant. Who said beggars can't be choosers, right? We felt like such A-holes we'd probably have driven downtown to get her Slows at this point. But we walked down to the wing-joint and ordered her boneless wings and a coffee to go. She was grateful. On the coat-tails of her thankfulness, she inched close to Dad, and asked in a much quieter tone, if he could also help her make bus fare while weaving a story of woe about her daughter and the police and a stolen bike. He obliged.

On our walk back Dad asked if I heard what she said when we apologized? "She forgave us," he said.

Sometimes I like to daydream about being a more honorable man; one who lives to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless. To be more willing to sacrifice my own needs for someone who isn't able to help themselves. I hope to instill this value in our beloved, as small as she is, to feel for others. I fantasize about having the abilities of Powder, to literally feel others' pain, to know what brought them to where they are, and similarly to be able to transmit their story to those as naive as me. But such abilities are works of fiction.

One 'intersectioner' has held a sign that says, "Hope is real." Reality asks that I simply take time to learn about another. That I consider another. It doesn't feel like enough, but perhaps this consciousness alone will give me the fraction of courage I need to act when action is needed. Perhaps hope IS real and can lead to healing in some capacity. I can live in hope.

Photo: stolen from

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