OPINION: The homeless provide unexpected lessons

Opinion_Gale_Horton_GayA bunch of do-gooders from a Stone Mountain church recently traveled to Atlanta to feed and fellowship with the homeless. The church folk expected they would be the ones imparting meaningful experiences, but they were wrong.

They brought food and served up a hot breakfast to dozens of men and women who had no permanent home. Each person was also given a new blanket. However, it was what took place between the meal and the blanket distribution that was eye-opening and transformative for the volunteers.

As plates of eggs, sausage and biscuits were hand delivered to the homeless men and women, the church members engaged the diners in conversation—not just superficial greetings but pull-up-a-chair/sit-down conversations. Many times they started with “Where are you from?” and “How long have you been in Atlanta?” and from there embarked on a journey.

At a debriefing of the morning, many of the church people said the experience was not what they expected. They talked about how they were surprised that many of the individuals were hopeful about the potential for change in their circumstances, how some of the homeless said they volunteered their time at other places, how open they were to talk about their addiction and plans for rehab and how kind they were in thanking the church volunteers for their efforts. One woman said she expected to encounter people who were angry and bitter but found they were anything but that.

One college student spoke about her encounter with an older man who reminded her of her father who died in May. Her eyes welled with tears as she talked about how he encouraged her to study and work toward her goal to become a nurse. She said it was just like something her dad would say.

A young woman who described herself as extremely shy said she was reluctant to strike up a conversation but when she did a homeless man shared he had no friends. The girl responded she didn’t have many either and the man told her that she could consider him one of her friends.

I was part of the do-gooders and a young man talked with four of us church members describing how although he had a job making $10 an hour, it wasn’t enough for a place of his own. Programs exist for housing for the homeless but too often they have extremely specific qualifications such as the person must have HIV or cannot be employed or have a deposit three times the monthly rent. The young man, who said he’d been homeless for a month, said a representative of one charity suggested he sell his car, but how would he be get to work, he replied.

The coordinator at Outreach Safehouse told the volunteers while the food and blankets were nice elements of the day, the most important part was the human contact they provided—talking, smiling, laughing and even occasionally embracing. We were asked to continue to do the same when we move about in the community and encounter people who have fallen on tough times. A smile, a nod, an acknowledgement of individuals’ humanity is missing from many lives but we have the power to change that any and every day of the year.

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