Made In The Shade? Not Hardly!

Posted: June 9, 2008 in Compassion, Friendship, Homelessness

The weather in California’s central coast has been beautiful. With the Pacific winds blowing inland, it makes for some really wonderful and pleasant weather. There are other parts of the country that aren’t so lucky. For example –

I received an email from a friend of mine who lives near the eastern seaboard where they are having temperatures in the high 90’s. Then, if I remember correctly, her area also has high humidity levels – which makes the heat all that more uncomfortable.  

In her email she shared about an encounter she’d had with a homeless gentleman. Here’s what she wrote:

Actually, there is another reason I have been obsessed with the heat. Last week I needed to dash into the grocery store for just one or two items. I noted my car thermometer read 96 degrees while driving so it was much hotter out in the parking lot of the grocery store I stopped at (and in a section of town that I rarely spend much time in as it is a bit "rough").

As I walked into the grocery store I noticed a man sitting under the roof on the sidewalk, head down, dressed in a substantial layer of clothing and there were bags all around him. It was pretty noticeable he was homeless. He was bothering no one, just looked as if he was trying to stay cool under the roof and was avoiding eye contact with folks.

I made a mental note of the man and was going to buy him a cool drink while shopping but this particular grocery store didn’t have anything chilled but beer. I paid for my groceries and exited the store. The man was still there. I walked up to him and it took him several seconds to realize I was indeed addressing him. When he did look up his eyes looked so sad. I said hello and asked if he had anything to eat. He replied no so I gave him some cash and told him to please go across the street to the fast food building a buy himself something to eat and drink.

He took the cash and got up on his feet and asked my name. He was very, very nice and told me that if he didn’t smell so bad he would hug me. We parted and when I got into my air-conditioned car I noted he was crossing the street to get something to eat and drink. I just sat in my car wondering how this nice man would find fluids, shelter and relief from this blasted heat. I’m still thinking of this man 4 days later… and hoping the heat subsides soon. It’s just as dangerous as the cold, this heat, without shelter.

When I emailed her back, I mentioned that "…avoiding eye contact with folks" is actually a recurrent "theme" among the homeless. There is a reason for this.

The homeless are, by way of their "residential status" accustomed to having negative and/or derogatory things said to them by members of the community. Every so often a homeless person gets fed up with that and lashes out verbally in return. But worse than the verbal tongue lashings a homeless person endures are the looks of distaste they receive. These are often times more wounding than words.

It’s not a pleasant feeling having other people look at you in disgust. What’s even worse is when folks deliberately pretend as though you aren’t there; as though you don’t exist. Moreover, there are folks who mistake a homeless person making eye contact with them as some form of threat of physical violence. Subsequently, rather than go through all of the unneeded "drama" a homeless person simply avoids making eye contact.

Another point I her email which I commented on was the line, "He was very, very nice and told me that if he didn’t smell so bad he would hug me."

That this gentleman was a nice person didn’t surprise my friend. She knows that there are homeless who aren’t nice and those who are. The part of the sentence I commented on however had to do with his acknowledgement "smelling bad."

The homeless are acutely aware of the appearance. They know that they don’t look as though they just stepped out of a high fashion apparel outlet store – and they know that they "looks" work against them in society. They are also keenly aware that many times they don’t smell like a dozen of roses. The problem lies with the limited wardrobe that most homeless have.

The limited amount of clothing that most homeless have, and a lack of regular access to laundering facilities, means that when a homeless person does bathe or wash up, the odds are that they are going to have to re-wear the clothing they had on previously. So even after a bath, the odor from clothing that may have been worn for days on end will continue to be there. This is also a reason that many homeless have problems with finding employment. They simply do not have as much of an opportunity to smell as freshly laundered as the rest of us.

There is something else that my friend – who by the way, is in the medical field – mentioned that so many other folks seldom consider: the heat and the need for fluids.

As my friend pointed out, "It’s just as dangerous as the cold, this heat, without shelter."

In some ways, for the homeless, the summer months can be an even more dangerous time than the winter. At least during the winter, a homeless person can wear as much clothing as they have to fight the bitter cold of winter. In the summer however, they can only "undress" to a certain extent.

During the summer months there are many homeless who suffer the ill effects of extreme dehydration without even recognizing that they are dehydrated. For those homeless who have on-going medical conditions, becoming dehydrated can exacerbate their medical conditions; cause physical collapse; coma – and even prove to be fatal.

This summer, as you go about your days, if per chance you happen to see a homeless person sitting in the shade trying to stay cool, before you look away or saying something unruly, try placing yourself in their position.

What if it was you sitting there hungry and thirsty? Wouldn’t it be nice if someone showed you a bit of kindness?

P.S.

K.

Thank you for sharing your experience and for your friendship

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Comments
  1. AnAmerican says:

    Your insights into the special circumstances that effect the homeless population is always shared with a heart of true concern & education for the public at large…thank you, my friend!

  2. papahere says:

    Hi Michael…we are very dependent on our ability to identify with others before we are comfortable being with them…tragically, most people are unable to experience within what the homeless are going through…I don’t know how that gap can be filled but those who are the most helpful are able to put them self in the shoes of the homeless. ~ Papa

  3. michael says:

    Papa,

    You mentioned that you didn’t know how the gap could be filled… I believe that a compassionate heart is a wonderful bridge across that gap – in fact, it is the most vital of keys to the breaking down of social barriers.

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