Last weekend was the “Point-In-Time Count (PIT)”- a national measure that takes place every January where a community attempts to capture the number of people who are literally homeless or sleeping in a shelter. This snapshot of homelessness meets a funding requirement for HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and the data is used to track progress on addressing homelessness, increase local and national awareness, inform policy makers, and attract resources to address homelessness. It was a Thursday through Sunday of waking up at 3:00am to walk the streets, under bridges, and near loading docks. Some people went up near the mountains, and others in parks. The places we visited were hidden and not meant for human habitation, perhaps invisible to your eye if you haven’t been looking.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the experience and even more time thinking about the people I encountered. I can’t tell you the depth of their stories and I can’t tell you about their experiences, hopes, fears, and goals, because our interactions were brief and it’s likely that I wouldn’t be able to fully understand, even if we had had all day. But I can tell you what I saw, what I heard, and how I felt. I can tell you how it made me reflect and how this experience informs my interactions with people I do not know. I can tell you about the fire that is inside my heart, and how important it is to not make generalizations about people you do not know. And I’ll tell you these things with the hopes that perhaps it will offer you a new perspective, an opening in your heart to fill with compassion, or a call to act. I’ll share these words with you in hopes that you’ll be curious and not-judgmental; compassionate rather than condemning.
It was so cold that I had on two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two pairs of gloves, five long sleeve shirts, a hat and a jacket. There was snow on the ground and I was acutely aware that I had gloves and all these layers on and the people we met did not. I was aware of the luxury I had to buy waterproof snow-boots and the time limited nature of my role in the count. I knew that I would return home to a warm apartment, they would not. I want you to know that there are places where people sleep that many of us could not even imagine. I cannot forget how cold I was, nor the knowing of how cold they were too.
None of the people we encountered between 4am and 6am were sleeping; they all appeared to be tired, but it was much too cold. We met a person laying on a loading dock, his eyes greeted us over the top of his sleeping bag; he was more vigilant and alert than he was asleep. We talked to a person under an overpass, huddled between two trash cans with bags of personal belongings laid out in front of him. I saw that we were both shivering, both cold, and we laughed together over the same joke. We met another person under a light-post, he explained that he was eager to complete the VI-SPDAT so that he could practice his ‘people skills’ and later asked us for feedback on how he was doing. He said it was nice to have someone to talk to. Another person explained that they were formerly homeless and showed more passion than some of the people in the room.
We walked down a dirt road, sideway stepped down a hill, and walked behind a graffitied building. There was a pile of wood, empty cups, trash, boxes, papers, and a blue tarp piled up to make a home. An overturned bucket held up the entrance; we only heard his voice and only saw his hands. He told us several stories that did not seem to be based in reality, and his voice was sweet, his words welcoming. He had no mailbox and no socks. He lives in a hidden place. I saw a person I knew, shivering on the snow covered cement, supported by the side of a building and his groceries thrown about. He was outside for over nine hours in the freezing cold because he had fallen and missed the last bus. A lot of people passed by, but no one had stopped. I noticed that his lips were pale, his body shaking.
We met a 32 year old laying on a tarp with only a yellow blanket covering his body. Empty boxes of hand-warmers surrounded him and his shoes were wet. He was under a tree and we heard him crying out in pain. His toes were raw and blistered; the nurse said his feet were frostbitten and that putting socks on would be too painful. He spoke only of his severe anxiety and kept his body under the blanket, partly for warmth, and partly because he said he felt too overwhelmed. He wouldn’t go to the hospital.
We didn’t end up ‘counting’ or assessing as many people as I expected; not because they weren’t there, but because somehow asking questions didn’t seem as important as addressing people’s more emergent medical needs and immediate suffering. I drove home with tears in my eyes, angry and cold, but with fire burning inside. I’m still trying to put together the words to describe this point in time. My thoughts, like many of the sentences in this post, are incomplete. What I saw was suffering and unshakeable resilience. I saw people surviving in a way that I had never seen before.
I tell you these stories because human suffering is not something we remember only when it is convenient for us. It is not something we fix with a simple solution or ignore because of an incomplete judgement. Mental illness, addiction, complex trauma, and homelessness are real. And they hurt. It can be isolating. And they do not fully represent who a person is.
What I know most is our shared humanity. This deep sense that my life is not worth more nor more important than another human being. I ask you to recognize the actual experience of someone in your community, and I ask you to make room in your heart to love someone that you do not know. As divisions becoming increasingly cemented, we must continue to make bridges between our hearts. For me, this is not about politics. This is about people.
Find your mission. Find your human, your cause, and your fight. Do not be quieted by systems, policies, or judgements.
We were given voices. minds. and hearts.