Back in 2015 after my father died, I was tasked with cleaning out the home where he lived for forty years. There wasn’t all that much to keep. We sledgehammered several old computer desks and donated or dispensed with furniture that no one needed or wanted. There was one thing left that needed to go to a good home.
That week I happened to meet a homeless man named James in a nearby town. He traveled about in a broken down wheelchair whose seat and creaky wheels were falling apart. I offered him my father’s chair and we agreed to meet later that day so that I could give it to him. Of course, the skies opened up the minute James took possession of his new chair and I watched him wheel up the street in a downpour. I did a painting of that moment that is currently being exhibited in a Batavia Fine Arts Center exhibition titled Portraiture at Batavia High School with an open house on March 13, 6:30-8 pm.
In all my encounters with James, he’s always been grateful in that pragmatic way the terminally homeless need to be. Money might mean a given problem is solved, but so many still awaited. He’d told me a number of things about his near-term issues. The homeless shelters didn’t want him to smoke. There were a few other rules he found offensive as well. That’s the challenge for so many homeless people. They are quite frequently square pegs trying to fit in round holes. Or vice versa. Without someone to help them overcome hurdles such as these, those realities become permanent problems. It might be called self-fulfilling tough luck.
James has additional problems that make his life difficult. The day that I gave him the wheelchair, James hoisted himself over and tried it out. There are no guarantees that a given chair is the right style for a person’s needs. When I first met him, James had only one leg due to complications of diabetes. Obviously that physical challenge made it difficult for James to find work, even if he tried.
Yesterday when I met James he was resolute as usual. But I noticed a profound change. He’s lost another leg to diabetes complications. “And they want my right arm too,” he lamented as we talked. “They’re taking me apart piece by piece.”
Earlier that day I’d gone for a run of seven miles. I didn’t feel shamed by having two legs to do so, but hearing what the loss of yet another limb has done to James turned the bright sunshine into a harsh glare of reality.
Money alone is not the solution
A couple years ago someone in town held an online fund raiser for James, using his name and image to raise cash. Then they denied James the money because the fund raiser in question wanted to dictate how he should use it. “It’s my name,” he said defiantly at the time. “I should decide how to use that money.”
James is perceptive in a raw way. He gets to encounter human nature across a spectrum of beliefs and personalities, some of them good, others not so much. It seemed he did not care for the bossy manner of his ostensibly charitable benefactor. Admittedly, that may be a problem for James on a number of fronts. His distaste for authority may be the root cause of his problems.
Perhaps we can all empathize with that. We all have issues with certain types of authority in this world. For James, life is tough enough without dealing with the sometimes judgmental attitudes of those who frown on those living on the streets. That said, I do see many people extending kindness to James. The world is not without care or hope.
But James now sleeps in his wheelchair because it’s no longer possible to get in and out of his chair. He used to be able to crawl into a tent where he made himself a home in a woods by the river, fending off coyotes trying to steal his meals. He’s reliant on a small government check of some sort to buy food and stay alive because his local relatives seemingly can’t take him in. They are elderly and possibly dispossessed of the idea of taking him in over age-old arguments. That was the sense I gained from talking with James a few years back. The world isn’t all that good at solving the problems of people like James, and neither is he. Sometimes it takes help.
A Safe Haven
Which is why I recently took a trip to Chicago to visit a facility called A Safe Haven. It is the brainchild of two exceptional people, Neli Vazquez Rowland and Brian Rowland, who through their professional lives possess the financial acumen to figure out how to create a sustainable way to help homeless people. The premise is to help people build a foundation from which to reclaim their lives from tough luck of all sorts.
I encourage you to click through and read about this intelligent response to homelessness. It is a model that transcends political excuses by taking the real challenges seriously, including giving people a place to live as they rebuild their lives through work and therapy. A Safe Haven helps people overcome addictions, criminal records or financial challenges, if those are issues, and they can frequently be found within the homeless population.
Homelessness is a real and critical problem in America. Some cities have no idea how to approach the issue. Neli and Brian made a decision years ago to focus their attention on the problem to prove that homelessness is indeed curable, but only if done in an economically viable and sustainable way.
Their biggest challenge, it seems, is getting politicians to admit that homelessness is a problem that can and should be cured. A Safe Haven is a proven model of success in Chicago. That process can be replicated all over America if the nation has the compassion and common sense to put down the political banners and recognize that curing homeless is actually an investment, not a cost to society. There are many people that have come out of homelessness to build businesses, lead healthy, successful lives and contribute to society. Homelessness is not necessarily a permanent condition.
But it takes belief and action to make that happen. Generations of politicians and economic leaders have chosen instead to throw blame around and point fingers rather than listen earnestly to the guidance and insights of people like Neli and Brian.
Selfishness the biggest barrier
We’re living in one of the most selfish periods in all of American history. Too many American citizens have elected to take the “I’ve got mine” approach to claiming their own healthcare, economic and employment as some sort of divinely prescribed “right” and are content to let others suffer whatever fate they encounter. That attitude is a Darwinian version of the Judeo-Christian ethic that Jesus came specifically to ablate. By tradition it was long believed that people suffering disease or other misfortune must have done something wrong in God’s eyes to deserve their fate. That tradition was wrong.
It is far past time to dispense with such age-old attitudes toward the less fortunate. Many homeless people can attest to the fact that they were just one medical emergency or job loss away from the crisis that hit them.
But it is cynical to say “There but for the grace of God, go I…”
It is far better to say “If there is a God, I should do something about the problems I see.”
It’s all part of a bigger picture that the human race needs to embrace for its own sustainability. The selfishness of ideologies that deny other human beings dignity, that relegate people to discrimination according to race, or gender, or sexual orientation…all these bad habits have anachronistic roots that should be dug up and tossed on the heap of prejudice, hate and bigotry.
And while we’re at it, we might even find the will the protect the planet itself from selfish interests denying that people are the cause of pollution, habitat destruction and climate change that could one day render much of the world’s population homeless. Otherwise, we could all end without a safe place to live. At some point we have to stop and say, “It does not make sense to be so selfish if it makes us all suffer in some way.”