Last night, three of us went out with The Salvation Army to feed homeless people who congregate on grates and street corners in Washington, D.C.
This is something my husband, son and I have done off and on for years, as part of a church ministry. My son first went out when he was eight years old.
One of my fellow volunteers has written an account of the evening on his blog, so I won’t try and tell the story again; I’ll simply encourage you to read it.
Dennis is correct that, according to my husband and me, this was not a normal night on a Grate Patrol run. The two major differences were that there were fewer homeless people out (and he was right, the city had been swept in an advance of this weekend’s festivities) and that we were serving out of a small car rather than a large van. Perhaps a third difference was that, at times, we were serving in heavy rain and lightning.
Recently, I was reading the newsletter of the Georgetown Ministry Center, another organization that helps the District’s homeless. In the most recent issue, GMC’s executive director, who always provides an informed view into homelessness that few of us have, addressed the perception of homelessness. This struck me. Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve picked the piece up and read it, and re-read it, wondering how I might share it with people who have varying perceptions and views about homelessness.
I feel his perspective merits consideration:
I once heard a young woman walking down M Street say, “They have a lot of bums here.”
Bums? These bums are our failure. They are people with complicated mental illness who have no insight into their condition. They are brothers, sisters, uncles, nieces, and sons and daughters. They are people with broken brains who should no more be wandering the streets on their own than a six-year-old.
Our society needs to take responsibility for this problem for all that it is. This is the important point. Those bums are unable to take care of themselves! The laws that govern civil commitment need to be expanded to recognize that someone with an impaired reality is not making a sound judgment when choosing to live on the street and eat from a garbage can. Where it is evident that people are making really bad decisions because of a mental illness or other brain disorder, we need better legal mechanisms to step in and help redirect their lives. Those mechanisms must be sensitive and well thought out and have limits, but we need them if we are going to make an impact on homelessness in our country.
The people under bridges, through all that dirt and shaggy hair and ragged clothes, are human beings disconnected from family and home by mental illness.
Dennis and Gunther are both correct. People arrive at homelessness via many paths. Here in the Washington area, as in other areas, a large number come from severe mental illness. There are many places in the United States where homelessness either doesn’t exist or is invisible, so the people who come from these places, when they visit Washington or other cities, react with shock, fear, denial, disgust or judgment.
Homelessness is not a problem that be solved by any one of us alone or by any single institution. At a minimum, though, we as human beings should be aware that there are other human beings who suffer from things we may never understand. But we’re all human beings.