Homeless people have been around since I was a young girl in the 60’s wandering the streets of New York City. Back then, they were few and far between, sitting quietly beside a sign that read, “Spare change?” Now, they are up front and very center across America. On any given night, half a million people are laying their heads on the ground, exposed to the elements, disease, filth and predators. Statistics say it’s due to unemployment, unaffordable housing, drug use and mental health issues. And while those things do affect the numbers, there is something deeper at work: they have lost connection with others. Sometimes that connection is lost by accident. Other times it is a purposeful break due to violence, trauma, or family alienation which now affects 27% of us.
13 years ago, a Stanford graduate fell off the grid. His concerned classmates, after a long, circuitous hunt, found him alive and sort of well living on the streets of New Orleans. That story had a happy ending. Most don’t but often it’s not for lack of trying. My own mother spent her later years walking the streets of Long Island pushing a shopping cart. At night, she slept in a baseball dugout. Despite getting her into housing, she always bolted claiming that she needed, “fresh air and freedom,” both of which came at a price.
Homelessness is a broken connection. It cannot be simply fixed by relocation, housing or even treatment. There is no one size fits all when you are talking about people. If you want to repair a broken circuit, you first have to turn off the power to it, troubleshoot which breaker has malfunctioned, replace and rewire it. On a plastic panel, it’s a simple process. In a human being, the breakers are endless and finding the right one to re-wire is often a crapshoot. This crisis across America will take a multiplicity of interventions connecting together at the same time.
I’ve spent the last few weeks in Hawaii. It is not the paradise I remember from 25 years ago. Now, I cannot go a single block without encountering a homeless person. I often take the bus but have yet to be able to sit at the stop, since there is usually someone sleeping on the bench. Once, I was chased into the street by a man who threw his socks at me because I didn’t have a light for his cigarette. But I’ve noticed something: The police are tolerant and the locals leave food and coffee by their camp sites. Yesterday, a blanket and a cooler filled with water and bananas were left on a park bench. This morning, I added my own pair of worn shoes. As Iyanla Vanzant so poignantly said, “You have to meet people where they are and sometimes you have to leave them there.”