“What’s brought you here?” I asked.
“They said I could find help here,” the voice responded brusquely.
I prodded further, “How long?”
“Seven, no – wait – eight years now I’ve been here.”
“Why didn’t you go back?” I asked without thinking. As that last question barely left my lips, I could see a tear forming in the corner of his eye. It was obvious I hit a nerve and was going to be here a while.
“They didn’t want me back and I take care of myself now.”
We’ll call him Fred, thought that’s not really his name. He would play the flute for passersby and occasionally someone would toss in a few coins. Over the course of the hour or so that I talked with him between songs, three people threw in wadded up rectangular pieces of paper with green ink.
“Not a bad haul for an hour.”
He counted out the total in front of me; something I hadn’t seen in a very long time. “Twenty-eight. That’ll do for now. Time to eat.” Then he got up and left. You see, that was something we used to do on the corners to divvy up the haul. We took shifts in panhandling and then divided the spoils. Money was always counted openly so that no one was accused of stealing.
Throughout the hour we talked about what brought him to Madison and how he ended up on the streets. It wasn’t a surprising conversation – I’d heard the same story many times before, but what struck me was that no matter how many closed doors he faced, he was able to make a living entertaining passersby. He found a niche and was able to do well for himself.
His wasn’t the same story of man meets drugs or alcohol and then ends up on the streets – his was about being downsized and let go from a well-paying factory job after the unions were disbanded. He was unable to find another job and one thing led to another. By the time Fred knew what happened, his wife and children left him and he was homeless on the streets of Milwaukee. He wandered over to Madison in the hopes that being at the State Capital might somehow sway someone to help him.
No such luck.
Speaking with him took me back to my own experience with homelessness at the ripe old age of 18. Like Fred, there was more to my experience than just walking around and pan-handling for money. I watched him for a while as he wandered from person to person – greeting other homeless with reservation and coded hand-signals I had long ago forgotten. Interesting how many of them seemed universal; I recognized some from my days in Los Angeles.
On the streets there were languages to learn, behaviors to recognize, social orders, and hierarchies to follow. Yes, homeless rummage through dumpsters for tossed treasures, but that isn’t everything a homeless person does – if you don’t know the rules, you might end up in a serious situation.
Some would say the rules of being homeless were rather basic and unassuming. For instance if I had to spend the night away from my normal sleeping area then I had to choose my ‘camp’ with care. If I didn’t, chances were that I would have been rolled or killed during the night (to be rolled is to have one’s possessions stolen while the person is being beaten severely). The same was true for encountering any food which may have been hidden for later consumption by another homeless person, as well as clothing, blankets and the odd shopping cart filled with cans. If you touched them in any way, you were at risk for being jumped or “removed” from the homeless rosters – permanently. Other rules were not so apparent or unassuming. But no matter what people may say about the homeless, they have a sense of responsibility to each other.
I remember one homeless man was being brutally beaten by some punk kid, and many of us went to his rescue. We beat the young man severely; he ran off screaming, but he had it coming. Who in their right mind would attack another human being just because they were homeless? Sadly, it turns out even the police engaged in regular homeless beatings. Oh, I almost forgot; the homeless aren’t human. They’re animals. Yet another set of rules to learn.
Homeless men and women have a unique culture that is well connected with other homeless communities even if there is little in the way of communication between them. I think Steven Vanderstaay expressed it best when he wrote , “ . . . while homelessness exposes the fragility of our lives and the vast inequalities of our society it also points up the great resilience of people and their ability to create networks of support and connection under the most harrowing of circumstances.” Imagine that! The homeless are able to create. The homeless have great resilience.
Sadly, as I watched Fred walk away I heard someone near me say, “Why doesn’t he just get a job?!” As I got up to continue my journey, I said under my breath: “Why don’ you grow some compassion” and walked over to where my wife had found some savory apples fresh from the trees.
I thought about Fred for quite a few days after meeting him. I spoke with a colleague about the wonderful encounter with him, but that person wasn’t as optimistic as I was and asked simply, “Why didn’t he get help?”
Again my mind raced back to the days of 1980’s welfare in the big cities. It was easier, then, to get and maintain help – especially if you were a single male. All you needed was someone to believe in you. It was even better if you believed in yourself.
I remember countless times I would ‘knock on the door of the inn’, only to be turned away at the door. Time and time again I would plea for help, often sobbing while recounting my woes. I even developed lines on my face where the dirt had been carried away by salty water flowing freely from the dams broken apart by wave after wave of sorrow. Eventually, though, the dams were repaired or else the water dried up, and the lines filled. I eventually stopped knocking. It was then I realized I had become dependent on the streets themselves. I was so focused on where my next meal would come from, or where I could bed down for the night, or which police were coming after me for vagrancy that I simply walked away from the doors.
Help, it seems, though ever present is often elusive. It is there for those who are deemed worthy and difficult to obtain if you are in anyway considered able bodied. So to be judged worthy, one often must first be judged. It’s a harsh reality – one even those riding on a donkey learned thousands of years ago. It’s just a quick look over to see if you are worth the trouble. If you make the cut then you jump through hoops to ensure you remain worthy. Miss one hoop and it is game over.
But as in 2000 years ago, one day the door opened and I was allowed to live, for a time, in the stables. I took a chance and it paid off. I was one of the lucky few and for many years I wondered why I was luckier than any of the others on the streets. Just as with Mary and Joseph, the answer is simply that I kept searching for that one door that would finally open enough so that someone would see the whole me, not just what they wanted to see. But we don’t do that anymore. Today, the door remains closed – that or they are so far apart people often give up before they even get to the one that opens.
We as a society have become so complacent with our own lives that we forget to answer the door; the few that still exist. We are so used to someone else doing it that we don’t even bother looking through the peep-hole. Today, it would most certainly take a pregnant woman riding on the back of a jackass with a dress-wearing husband walking beside them for anybody to even take notice – and that is saying something given our current social paradigm. Even then they may go unnoticed as something aberrant or so against cultural norms that they must be avoided – you know, like those people who don’t follow our own beliefs, political views, or even our thirst for social justice. We lump them all into the category of undesirable and make other people deal with them while we hurl insults under our breath at them from afar. I’ve done it so I know it happens. There is a scripture where our Lord tells his disciples to go to the next town and whoever opens the door, stay there and bless their house. Where the door is not opened, shake the dust from their sandals. In our “modern” society they would have the cleanest sandals in all the land.
Fred, it seems, is quickly becoming the norm – more so than should be. He has learned to trust only what he takes in. He has learned, despite the spitting in his face and upset he receives on a daily basis, to take life one day at a time. Rather than knock on a door, he has learned to create the door for himself so that if someone else around him needs to knock, he is there. Rather than turn others away, he has found a way to coexist and walk with dignity. Such was done 2000 years ago with the birth of a man millions today believe in, but few actually follow.
I’ve often heard the scripture – “Take up your cross and follow me…”, but today, in honor of the couple looking for a place to give birth, I build a door I can always open and I will carry it with me everywhere I go – opening it for those who have been turned away everywhere else.
The Rev. Father Kenneth Nelan is the pastor of the Sacred Wandering Pastoral Center in Milwaukee Wisconsin. He is also the celebrant of the Sunday Mass broadcast on Facebook.