“He likes hot chocolate,” she said. Feeling cold myself, I approached the local barista and asked her for a large cup of coffee for the seemingly homeless man sitting outside on the cold bench. I say “seemingly” without knowing, but based on the tattered clothes, the unpleasant odor and the worn shoes. “God bless you,” he shyly replied when I offered him the hot drink. It was almost as if he preferred to remain anonymous.
I walk around the lake every morning and often see the same people who are out in the early morning hours. Again, without being presumptuous, I will venture to say that most of these folks have no place to call home. What strikes me today as I remember my hot chocolate connoisseur, is that we are not that different, me and the early morning lake dwellers. We enjoy the quiet morning hours, the beauty of the lake, making contact with each other and the simple pleasures of life such as a hot drink first thing in the morning.
Another thing I realized is that while I have been walking my same path every morning, seeing the same people every day…I have yet to ask this homeless man whom I shared a cup of hot chocolate with his name. He must have one; his life story would be one to share. And so today I vowed to ask; I vowed to embrace his story, whatever it is as one of value. Today, I did not find him, so instead I approached another woman whom I encounter on my daily treks; one who often appears to be responding to some unknown entity. She scares me at times, not in a physical sense, but because of her anger and what she might do with it. Over the years, I have listened to her talk to herself about her past as a violinist. Today I told her that some day I would like to hear her play. She just smiled.
America has an overwhelming homeless population. This is a fact that cannot be disputed nor easily remedied Not only do we not have enough services to care for these people but the underlying issues that cause and perpetuate homelessness are varied and complicated. According to the Associated Press in 2005, there were 744,000 homeless people in the United States. California was the state with most homeless people in that year, about 170,000, followed by New York, Florida, Texas and Georgia, according to the report.
How and why do people become homeless? There are a myriad of reasons: mental health issues, drug and alcohol use/abuse, medical problems, unprepared for emergencies, natural disasters, lack of affordable housing and the list goes on. No two stories are identical when it comes to our family of homeless. Usually there is a combination of factors that lead to being homeless, but the truth remains the same for all of them. I imagine many of them feel, and are in reality, alienated and abandoned … invisible.
I do not want to pretend or hope that sharing a cup of hot chocolate or validating someone’s true or perceived identity will change the world, but I will venture to say that making contact and breathing life into those whom we might rather avoid can bring hope.
Oftentimes, we are at a loss as to how to break through this crisis and make progress. On a grassroots level, there are many ways to offer support to homeless people. Here are some things we can think about when we engage with our homeless brothers and sisters: Talk to each person with respect, understand who the homeless people are through education and personal experience, be kind, offer clothing or blankets, volunteer at a shelter or a soup kitchen, offer food, educate your children about the homeless people in your neighborhood, contact your local government representatives about the issue and whenever you can, stand up for the civil rights of the homeless.
At this time in our world history, things move so quickly: people are plugged in and tuned out. It takes extra effort to look outside of ourselves. Next time you see a homeless man or woman who may repel you or pique your curiosity, consider engaging with them. Whether or not one has housing, or a firm grip on what we see as reality, should not be a reason to ostracize them from the human family. It is up to us. A cup of hot chocolate may be much more than a cup of hot chocolate to that homeless person, or a passing hello at night to someone who has experienced that feeling of being invisible may be the best thing that has happened to that person in weeks.
Today, almost one full week since my encounter with the nameless hot chocolate lover, I learned his name. Unfortunately, this was not because I was finally able to more fully engage him, but instead, to hear of his death. The barista who helped me know his favorite drink asked me this morning, “Hey, did you hear about John?” I asked, “Who is John?” She remarked that he was the man I bought the hot chocolate for the week before. “He died from a massive heart attack on Sunday night,” she said. “He was 48.”
To think how I was able to offer a gesture of kindness so close to this man’s last moments on earth touched me. It also saddened me. Now I will never have the chance to hear his story. Nor will I ever share another hot drink with him. I bet he would have liked that. I would have too.
To quote Ralph Ellison, “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Let us start to see our homeless neighbors and, if nothing more, smile or say hello to them. They will probably say, “God bless you.” And you might make a new friend.