Monday, December 16, 2013

No one is a lost cause. Find the spark.

Recently had some conversations about homelessness and why people feel that they are contributing to drug abuse and addiction without knowing the person. 
In college, I made it my goal to sit and talk to homeless on the streets of DC.  I once sat with a woman for 20 minutes talking to her about why she is there, where she stays and why.  Apparently she felt safer sleeping in the cold under the stairs of a bank than at a shelter where people "come in with all kinds of things that they shouldn't, and steal everything you might have come with."  The video camera eyeing the door to the cash-machine was her friend and the light was her safety net.  What a cruel contrast to see her "home" across the street from where we sat on a stoop, asking for change for food, and all the time it being directly below a financial institution.  That conversation has never left me.  I was late to dinner, and apologized for making people late but never for my reason.  I needed that.  Most people need it and they don't even know it.  We need to stop and look around and count our blessings and help how we can.  I gave her $5 for the conversation and for keeping her distracted from her pan-handling.  I probably owed her much more over my lifetime.
At my college, I had a meal plan.  I never used my breakfast swipe.  I was never a morning person.  As it got colder nearing the end of the fall semester, I decided I was being wasteful.  I saw so many people every time I went out with my friends for classes in the city or to eat or to go to museums (love free museums!) that were out on the streets.  Some asked for money or food.  Most didn't.  Most just sat and did their own thing and didn't bother anyone at all.  I started taking my leftovers home whenever I left a restaurant.  Needless to say, they never made it home...and that was the point.
Where does the meal plan come in?  When I realized I was being wasteful not only with the money but with the food that money could buy, I decided to do something about it.  I didn't reduce the meal plan (it wasn't an option).  Instead, I started getting my butt up 5 minutes earlier in order to stop by the dining hall to use my breakfast swipe to buy non-perishable goods.  I started hoarding non-perishables in my dorm room in my soccer bag...and then in boxes...and then in plastic bags.
I decided I would take any of my friends who weren't using their swipes and ask them every once in a while to do what I was doing and to let me hoard their food!  This only lasted a little less than a month as the semester had ended.  During my finals week one day when I was free, I grabbed some friends.  We toted the bags to the train station and walked outside.  It was snowing.  It was cold.  There were no people in sight.  We walked a few blocks this way and some more that way.  Nothing. 
It was a beautiful snowy day like in the movies.  I was relieved.  I had hope that people had found their ways to warmer places.  I asked around about a shelter.  Of course, none of the passersby knew.  We called 411 and found out about one nearby.  We walked in to a large bunk-bed-filled room of women.  The ladies working there told us that they run solely on food donations so whenever they receive things they ration them between the women that stay there. 
They announced our presence and everyone gathered around.  I felt so strange.  I don't like the attention. I don't like all eyes on me.  I didn't do it for the attention.  I did it because I don't want people to have to ration food to survive.  And then, the mood changed.  It was the holidays, after all!  One of the women said, "let's sing"...and they did.  WE did.  That big group of ladies, myself and friends included had a sing-along that day as the women who were running the center went through the bags of goods we'd carried to pass them out.  I didn't feel singled out anymore.  I felt like I was part of the group.  I felt like those people had a spark.  They recognized what it means to feel singled out and they didn't make me stand there awkwardly awaiting strange praise that we didn't feel we deserved, they invited us to be happy with them and sing holiday songs.  I don't know who was or them.
After that semester, I started just collecting things I could store in my purse and carry whenever I went out: granola bars and the like, mostly.  I still carry my leftovers home with the intention of them never arriving. 
Homelessness is the problem, not the homeless.  They have whole histories we've never even imagined and stories like ours that turned bad.  They have problems like us but not the support systems or the know-how to get help early on before they are stuck without their basic needs to be met and no way to change their fortune but the help of strangers (us).
That's why I stop and stare and rewind when I see things like the story below.  This makes me proud of people who still take the time and energy to see the spark in others, no matter how down-and-out they might seem.  Just wanted to say thank you to Patrick McConlogue, wherever you are now, for ignoring the nay-sayers and the negative Nancys and the people who said you don't have a brain or logic or any real understanding of moral compasses and of people.  Thanks for believing in the spark and honesty and loyalty and drive of people to be better than they are and to make a difference.  Thanks for helping the spark become a fire.
Find the Spark.

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