One of the major changes in my life has been with regards to how often I interact with the local area homeless. Where it used to be a day to day event, over the last several months as my life has stabilized, these interactions have become less frequent. It isn’t that there is an actual avoidance taking place; rather, it’s that I now move in different "circles" than I did when I was living in a tent.
Still, whenever I happen to meet a homeless person, I do my best to make the time to speak with them and, if I can afford it, pass them a few dollars.
A couple of days ago, I received a telephone call from one of the homeless I became friends with. Not only were we (and still are) friends, but he and I shared the same "camp."
All told there were four of us there – plus two "part timers" who would also stay in our camp when they couldn’t find somewhere else to sleep.
My friend is a two tour Viet Nam Veteran. He suffers the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although, he is receiving treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there are times when the PTSD kicks into high gear.
I recall on one occasion, everyone had turned in for the night. Sometime during the very early morning hours I heard him screaming. He was trying to get out of his tent and couldn’t find the door.
He used to sleep facing the "front" of the tent. That night however, he must have been overly restless in his sleep and, with all of the tossing and turning, ended up facing the rear of the tent. When he woke in the middle of the night, he was disoriented and because he was facing the wrong direction was trying to exit from the wrong side. Not being able to find the zipper he began to panic.
Hearing his screams, I crawled out of my tent just as quickly as I could and called to him asking what was wrong. He kept saying that he couldn’t get out; that he was trapped. I could hear the fear and the panic in his voice.
When I unzipped his tent’s door, even in the darkness, I could see that he was at the back of the tent; vainly searching for the door. When he heard my voice, he turned around and crawled out on his hands and knees.
I placed my hand on his shoulder and could feel his body trembling. He was wet with sweat. I could see a suffering in his eyes. I said something to the effect that everything was okay; he had somehow managed to get turned around while he slept, that’s all; everything was fine.
I sat up with him for the next hour or so, while he went through the struggle of regaining his composure. He told me about the dreams he’d been having. Although I was hearing his words, the sound in his voice spoke volumes of something else he was experiencing: extreme loneliness and isolation.
Prior to becoming homeless, he had been a licensed electrician. He’d owned his own company; did a lot of sub-contract work for general contractors. And, had made a decent living at it.
He had suffered the effects of PTSD for years prior to becoming homeless but he had managed to keep it partially submerged and under semi-control. However, as time progressed, the stresses of having to meet deadlines and a number of other job related issues, his PTSD was getting the best of him.
In the end, his marriage failed, which brought about a severe depression. After that, his business failed and in due time he found himself homeless.
The other day when he called, he apologized for bothering me (which he wasn’t) but he just wanted to call and see how I was doing. I could hear in his voice that he was trying to be cheerful and upbeat. But, I could hear the loneliness; the feelings of isolation coming through just as it had on that one night over a year ago.
Despite having interaction with other homeless – and even with staff members of the various homeless support service agencies – feelings of loneliness and isolation are not uncommon among the homeless. These feelings can become so overwhelming, they can often times bring about feelings despair.
Human beings are basically social creatures. There is a psychological and emotional need to interact with others. When there are restrictions to interaction with others, it can produce adverse effects to the human psyche. It most certainly affects a person’s self-esteem.
Consider that in most communities, there is very little personal or social interaction between the "housed" members of the community and the homeless. What limited interaction which does occur usually takes the form of a donation from a kindly stranger. There is, additionally, another "type" of interaction that occurs which takes the form of unkind words, looks of spite and contempt – and worse yet – the deliberate ignoring of the person. The latter, is worse than no interaction at all.
If you treat a person as unworthy for long enough, they eventually begin to see themselves as unworthy.
I wonder – if instead of ostracizing the homeless, we began treating them with basic human dignity, might that provide them with the incentive and motivation to rise above their current situation?
I also wonder – if we began to view the homeless through the eyes of compassion what might we see?
"True kindness presupposes the faculty of imagining as one’s own the suffering and joys of others."
– Andre Gide –
Showing kindness and compassion costs us nothing. But, the return on investment is beyond price.