One year ago today, I was sitting in a seat at one of San Luis Obispo’s movie houses: The Palm Theatre.
It was the week of the SLO International Film Festival. I had been invited to the debut showing of a documentary on homelessness. The film was called Suckerfish. The reason for the invitation? I had been one of the film’s interviewees and both José Lemus, the film’s director, and his wife, Mary Garcia-Lemus, the film’s producer, asked me to attend.
To be quite honest, I was a bit reluctant about going. I pretty much figured that I would be the only homeless person there. I was right, of course. Yet, because I had promised to be there, I showed up.
Although I knew what I had said during the interview, it was nonetheless somewhat a peculiar sensation to see myself projected on the screen. Throughout the film, I felt a type of pressing in on my spirit. That feeling was so strong, that straightaway after the film, I rose up out of my seat and headed for the men’s room to splash some water on my face.
When I stepped back into the auditorium, there was a question and answer session going on. I stood at the back as near to the doors as possible. Then something occurred that I had no way of being prepared for. José saw me standing there and pointed me out to the audience. The response I received caught me completely by surprise. They began to applaud.
That was a strange feeling. I had become so accustomed to having people “shy” away from me because of my being homeless. So to have an entire group of people who knew of my current situation acknowledge me as just a person was something out of my experience. It left me dumbfounded.
At the reception for the film, which was held directly afterward, I was again greeted with dignity and respect. Folks who had been in the theatre came up to me without hesitation, introduced themselves, shook my hand and several of them actually gave me hugs.
Although I’m ashamed to admit it, I had become cynical of “housed” people because of the way many of them treat the homeless. In the year prior to the showing of the film, I had had my share of being treated as though I were less of a person than everyone else because I was homeless. And, I had built up my own set of misconceptions of the public in general. I viewed them with as much suspicion as they often times viewed the homeless.
Yet, here I was surrounded by people who, despite my being homeless, were comfortable having a simple conversation with me. They weren’t talking “down” at me. They weren’t talking “up” at me. They were talking with me. They were accepting me for me and not for some perceived “status” or lack of status.
I learned a valuable lesson that night. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.
There is good and bad in every segment of society – homeless or housed. But, we’ll never know which unless we take the time to get to know the other person.
When we automatically assume that a person is a certain way simply because of their “status” in the community, we limit our potential for personal growth. When we “judge a book by its cover” we reduce the chance of finding a gem in the form of a friendship. And that makes our lives just a little bit less complete.
I must admit, that I’m still a bit cynical when it comes to how I view the majority of the community with regards to how they treat the homeless. But, hopefully I’m less cynical than I used to be.
It’s difficult to go through the experience of being homelessness and be shunned by so many members of the community without having it affect you. I don’t know anyone who could go through the experience unscathed. It leaves scars that will last a lifetime.
There have been quite a number of changes that have occurred in my life since that night.
That night, after everything was over and done, Mary’s brother Andy drove me from the reception to the empty field where my “home” was at. It was dark and cold. The marine layer hung over the field like a low hanging cloud.
After I crawled into my tent, I lit a candle so that I could see. I straightened out the sleeping bags and blankets. I munched on some of the snacks that I had taken with me from the reception. Afterward, I crawled into my sleeping bag completely clothed to stay warm. The following morning I headed out to a public bathroom I knew of so that I could take a “bird bath.”
I no longer live in a tent. Now I’m indoors. As I write these words, I’m “watching” the news. I’ve been following what’s been going on with the current Presidential election campaigns. I’m trying to determine which of the candidates are worthy of my vote. As soon as I publish this post and check my e-mail, I’ll take a shower and crawl into bed. I have a busy day tomorrow.
And that’s a good feeling.</p