I’ve been sitting on this sketch for a few weeks now, waiting for the right time to share it with you. Paul, one of the two authors at Two Voices One Transmission asked me to create a sketch based on descriptions of several characters in this blog post. His interactions with his “favorite neighbors,” who were either homeless, or on the discarded fringes of society, resonated with me. I don’t know how well I responded to the challenge, but I certainly enjoyed creating these sketches. This also provided an opportunity to reflect on my evolving perspective towards homeless friends.
Last week I wrote about life lessons I learned while hiking the Appalachian Trail. (If you’d like to read it, you can visit here.) I spoke at length about the hardships (and perks) of living as a homeless hiker. But the thing is, I wasn’t really “homeless.” If things became too difficult, I knew my patient wife would be waiting with open arms. There were only a handful of nights (out of 166) that I struggled to find a place to sleep at night. I lost an unhealthy amount of weight, but access to food was rarely the issue. And while the typical long-distance hiker looks (and smells) like a feral creature, there was no shortage of “hiker-friendly” towns and homes that welcomed us, some even celebrated the fact that we were walking the woods for a really long time.
My homeless friends don’t have the luxury of a support system. No friends and family back home to send encouragement or care packages. They don’t have credit cards in their pack that they can pull out when the urge to dip into town for a hot meal and a shower becomes overwhelming. Rather than being celebrated for enduring a challenging existence, the homeless often face ostracism and attacks. A life like this doesn’t strike me as fun, or inspirational. And it certainly isn’t glorious.
But this isn’t always a recipe for despair.
In Bucharest, the income disparity between the homeless and middle class is much lower than in other developed countries. The “uniform” of the homeless man asking for donations is difficult to distinguish from the vender selling trinkets in a nearby stall. And women such as my homeless friend Gheorghita are treated with respect and deference.
The saint of the streets
I first met Gheorghita several years ago as she stood vigil on a busy street corner near the entrance to my favorite market, which also happens to face the domes of an ornate Orthodox church. She is a diligent representative of Romanian preventative medicine, ready to shower blessings for health, prosperity and love upon you and your family in exchange for a one Lei donation (about $0.25).
I really want to call her a friend, but she’s not on Facebook, so I don’t know the rules here. Our conversations are also more limited than I’d like, not because she isn’t friendly, but because I still don’t have a firm grasp on the Romanian language. She says she is 74, but doesn’t look a day over 70. Despite exceeding what we would consider ripe retirement age, I rarely miss seeing her at her post. Summer, winter, suffocating heat or frigid snow, she stands ready to greet anyone who passes. It’s a level of discipline that is driven partly by the need to survive, but also because, as she shares with me, this is her mission in life. And she’s good at it.
Finding joy in the park
A hiker friend who prefers to be called Jem when she’s not a minister for the homeless in Boston, helped me to see the moments of joy that bubble to the surface when those otherwise shunned can come together briefly and share in an outdoor craft project. Imagine a half-dozen people taking a break from their rounds through the streets of Boston to sit together in a park and paint or patch the holes in one another’s clothes. Laughing at the goofy people racing by them “all wired up” with cell phones, earphones, spilling coffee on their briefcases in the race to beat everyone to the intersection. Once there, the crowd waits in anxious anticipation for a light to give them permission to cross the street. Personally, I’d rather be the one painting in the park.
This last sketch is inspired by a man who claimed a corner outside the entrance to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio several years ago. He didn’t hold out a sign or a bucket for passing drivers to drop a donation in. His weathered face and unflinching confidence stopped me in my tracks. Vogue or GQ or the fashion magazine de juer won’t put him on the cover. His windblown hair and everywhere creases caused by a hard life lived under the sun tells a story that I wish I’d had courage to ask to hear. To me, he is beautiful.
I recognize that these snapshots do not paint a complete picture. Mental illness, addiction, and crime are prevalent in homeless communities. Government funded support systems are inadequate in many cases and often abused. Years of struggling with broken hearts and homes and minds often leads to horrible decisions with far-reaching consequences.
I suppose that’s what makes these unexpected gifts so valuable. Dedication to a higher calling. Finding joy in connecting with others. Boldly facing the world on their own terms despite an unfathomable series of challenges and suffering. These people have my gratitude, and respect.