Yesterday I spent some time talking with a number of the local area homeless who I haven’t spoken with since just before Christmas. All of them had the same question for me: did I have a good Christmas and a good New Year. I had to admit that despite having had a cold during most of that time that I did have a nice time.
In turn I asked them how they had been weathering the wet days that SLO had been having. Some of them had been able to get into the shelter. And then of course, there were those who couldn’t get into the shelter and despite their best efforts found themselves wet and cold.
It was hard for me to hear. It’s hard for me to accept that any person should have to be out of doors in such foul weather – especially in a country as prosperous as ours.
A storm hit this area. The rains came down heavily. The winds were so fierce that power lines were downed, tens of thousands of county residents found themselves without power, and there is even one place where I saw that a tree limb, that was about 8 inches in diameter, had been torn from the main trunk of the tree.
In fact, as fierce as the winds were, I’m surprised that the entire city of San Luis Obispo didn’t find itself blown away all the way to the land of OZ.
Having had to live in a tent for quite some time myself, I know well what it can be like when the rains come down in sheets and the winds are blowing in full force. I also know what it’s like to have streams that you’re camped near become so bloated with water that it creates a virtual swamp around the tent.
Last year, when the rains came down I had been laying down one evening. It had been raining non-stop for quite some time and the stream behind my tent couldn’t contain all of the rain. And then I felt it – the floor of the tent seemed to become fluid as a rush of water came gushing past. I remember that the battery operated lantern I had feel over from the "wave" of water passing under the tent floor.
I can only imagine what it must have been like for those homeless who had to "sleep out" over the last day or two, especially with the winds as high as they were.
They must’ve wondered if their tents or camps would be able to weather the storm. Or would what little earthly possessions that they had be ruined by the weather?
And what about those who didn’t have a tarp or a tent? Were they able to stay dry? Did they have a dry set of clothing they could change into after all was said and done? What about those who had been camped in some of the lower elevations? Did they get flooded out? How deep and swampy was the mud in the areas surrounding where they "camped?"
The night before last, while it was raining I couldn’t help but wonder who among the homeless that I know were forced to sleep out of doors. Yet, I was safe, dry and out of the weather. I felt a bit guilty about that. I had to ask myself why me and why not them. How is it that I was one of those who didn’t have to worry about not having a place to sleep while so many others in this community did?
It certainly wasn’t due to any great merit of mine. The majority of the good fortune that has come my way over the last 10 months or so, has been due to the kindness and compassion of other members of this community. They, for some reason, saw fit to reach out a helping hand to me. And because of them, I have been able to regain the momentum to begin rebuilding my life.
It’s been a long tedious process. There have been some setbacks along the way. Life is far from peaches and cream. It’s not entirely back to normal – what ever normal may be. There are still some precarious moments ahead, I imagine. Still, I have a renewed sense of hope – a hope that had been noticeably lacking for quite some time.
With that hope, however, there is something else. It is a sense of obligation. An obligation to help those around me understand the realities of what homelessness is all about: it’s about people. It’s about the need for us as a community to seek a way to end homelessness – or at least significantly reduce the numbers of homeless in our community.
But that is something that can only happen if we’re willing to see past the stereotypes, the misconceptions and stigmas associated with homelessness.
If we give ourselves the permission to see a homeless person, not as someone who is homeless, but as a person, then I believe we will have taken the first step at creating a healing environment.
After that the rest is easy.