This morning, as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror shaving, I happened to catch a good look at the eyes that were gazing back at me. At first those eyes seemed unfamiliar. They were eyes that had seen too much – and yet, in some ways, not enough. The eyes told the story of a life that has been altered forever by the experience of homelessness. Then I noticed the eyes that were gazing back at me were becoming filled with tears.
Perhaps because I do not see homelessness as a lifestyle, but rather as an affliction, the weight of the experience is – and has been – heavy on my spirit. At times it has left me feeling "soul sick." At other times, it has caused me to question how, at times, it is so easy for us to pull away from and behave inhumane toward our fellow citizens. In doing so, we inflict wounds upon the spirit of those we shun; we permanently scar those to who we should be reaching out a hand of compassion to.
In "Tender Is The Night," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:
"One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still."
As I continued to stand there looking at my own reflection, I thought of the many homeless children that I’ve met. I wondered what their future will become as a result of their having had experienced homelessness. Will they be resilient enough to be able to function as productive adults when the time comes? Or, will the experience cause them to shrink away? Will they be capable of putting the ghost of homelessness behind them, or will it forever haunt them?
I thought of the homeless women I have met. Some of them having to experience homelessness because they chose to flee relationships that were filled with domestic violence. It saddened me to think of the desperation they must have felt and how being homeless was the lesser of the two evils in their lives. It left a sick feeling in my stomach to think of the way they were often times treated like a "piece of meat" or just another potential sexual conquest in the by of some of the homeless men.
I thought about the homeless senior citizens I’d met. On a fixed income. A number of them with physical disabilities or other health issues requiring medication. Now, in what should be their retirement years and which should have been spent in quiet leisure, having to struggle amidst a society that, for the most part, despises its homeless citizens. Some of them living in their vehicles. Discarded and treated as though they were useless.
I thought about those homeless I’d met who have mental or emotional disabilities. Because of their disabilities, unable to fend for themselves. Consequently they were often times viewed and treated as easy prey; taken advantage of by those homeless who are unscrupulous and lack moral principals. How is it that we are able to ignore their needs? Why aren’t we taking more care of those who cannot care for themselves? How can we continue to avert our eyes to their suffering?
I thought about the many Veterans I’d met. Many of them combat Veterans. Scarred by the experience of war. Now, being further wounded by the ravages of homelessness. Heroes who are ignored. Heroes who are being treated in the most despicable of ways. Called names. Having profanities yelled at them. Being treated as outcasts. Being further alienated by the very society the served to protect.
I thought about one Veteran in particular. A dear friend. Sam. Veteran of the Korean Conflict. Struggled with a degenerative illness: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD). He died in his bed at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Homeless Shelter in the early hours of Easter morning 2005. The emptiness that his passing left in my heart is still painful. Honorably discharged, there was no honor in his dying a homeless Veteran. That he died homeless is a dishonor to us as a nation.
***** ***** ***** *****
As I finished shaving and began collecting the things I needed for the day ahead, I paused long enough to reflect on the eyes I had seen gazing back at me from the mirror.
Yes, these eyes have seen too much. But, as I said, they haven’t seen enough.
What they haven’t seen is true desire on the part of this nation – and its elected leaders – to make homelessness only a word and not a reality.