A while ago, two men, both of whom I know currently sleep on our streets, were standing outside Bethesda Cares‘ Drop-In Center. Each stood beside a shopping cart laden with blankets, clothes and bags brimming with who knows what. (The image of a person experiencing homelessness, pushing around a shopping cart is as unhelpful a stereotype as any other, but it is on occasion what I see.)
We exchanged greetings; then one of the men glanced at the two carts, tilted his head toward the other man, looked at me and guffawed: “Look at this guy, Amy! He’s got more stuff than Donald Trump!” We all laughed, I unlocked the door to my office and we each went on with our days.
The moment has stayed with me for a lot of reasons. First, I caught myself again in the mistake of thinking anyone homeless is somehow different from me. I was surprised that the man both knew who Donald Trump was, and was capable of making a pretty good joke about him. There is no “us,” there is no “them.”
Second, well, look back at what I wrote, above, “I unlocked the door to my office.” I unlocked my door, just as I had locked my house on leaving for work, unlocked my car to drive to work and locked it again on arriving.
Why are all the places in my day locked when I am not in them? Because I don’t want anyone taking my stuff. Bet you don’t, either. So probably you don’t leave your house unlocked, your wallet on a park bench or your iPhone on top of your mailbox.
But that seems fine to me. We all seek to acquire items that we value and that provide us comfort and pride. Wanting to protect what you have seems to me a pretty normal and healthy desire. It shows that you appreciate the importance and value of your stuff. You took the time, trouble and resources to get it — you want to keep it safe. Safe from the elements, safe from marauders…you want to know the stuff you leave around town, in your home, your car, your office and your coat pockets will be there on your return.
For those living unsheltered, that isn’t the case. No locks on a bus stop or a makeshift tent, you know?
I speak at a lot of local schools and congregations, and one question I can count on hearing during the Q & A is this: “Does Bethesda Cares help get homeless people jobs so they can get apartments?” It’s a reasonable question.
The answer is “no.” We help people get homes. Homes, in which they can keep life-saving medicine in refrigerators or cabinets. Homes, from which they can battle addictions, or physical or mental ailments, without wondering whether or where they will sleep that night. Homes, from which they can reclaim their dignity and try to rebuild their lives.
Doors come before jobs. Because formerly homeless guys want to lock their stuff away when they leave for work, too.