“Just in case you ever wonder whether or not you make a difference, you made a difference in my life,” she told me, her soft brown eyes looking intently at me, her hands holding mine.
She had been a client at the homeless shelter where I used to work. It was a sudden change in her circumstances, an unexpected hiccup on her path that landed her there. “I just need someone to help me with my resume,” she had said to me on that day, several years ago when we’d met.
I’d connected her with one of the staff in the shelter’s job training program and they had helped her with her resume.
“You took the time to hear me out and then to do something about it,” she said.
That resume got her a job in house-keeping with a large organization. On the day we meet again, many years after that first encounter, she is a member of the client advisory group I am working with at the homeless foundation where I now work. We are talking about story-telling.
I ask the group for a word or two that they would like the world to see them as. Passionate is one of my words I tell them, what are some of yours?
Strong. Caring. Compassionate. Kind. Thoughtful. The list goes on.
And what are the words you think of when you think of homelessness, I ask. The words you think people use to describe you or other people in that state?
These words come even faster. Dirty. Scum. Garbage. Drunks. Addicts. Lazy. Good for nothing. Freeloaders.
They are endless. They are painful. They are cruel.
Write of your experiences of being judged as dirty, scum, garbage, but write from your place in the first list, I tell them. Write of what you know about homelessness, but let people see your strength, courage, compassion, thoughtfulness, kindness.
Show them your humanity is not different than their humanity. Help them see that homelessness is a state of living. It is not who you are.
Homelessness makes you feel inhuman, one of the men in the group says. You’re constantly feeling an outsider. It gets so bad I have to not care any more. I can’t let what other people think about me matter. I don’t care if they like me or not.
Another man jumps in. Yeah. I know what you mean, but the problem is, I do care. I just can’t let it show.
He is back in school. He wants to work in the sector when he graduates. After 20 years of living rough, letting alcohol and drugs dictate his every move, he is clean and sober and on track to live the life he’s learning to dream about.
It’s hard to trust in dreams when you’re homeless, the group tell me. Dreams are for losers. Dreams will only disappoint you, let you down. Dreams leave you vulnerable, and there’s one thing you can’t be when you’re homeless and that’s vulnerable. Bad things happen to people who let down their guard.
I spent a couple of hours last week in conversation with people willing to share their lived experience of homelessness because they want to include their voices in the city’s plans to end homelessness.
They were honest, forthright, open, funny, articulate and accountable.
I got a ticket, one man shared. $250 he cannot afford but will have to pay. The group had suggestions of what he could do. One man asked, who are you most angry with — the guy who gave you the ticket or yourself for forgetting to stamp your ticket at the station? Myself, he admitted. It was a stupid mistake. And then he adds proudly. But I didn’t get angry. I didn’t get disrespectful with him. I kept my cool.
That’s a win, the group agreed as they applauded him for his accomplishment.
And then, as I was leaving, the woman came up and thanked me for something I’d done years ago. I’d always hoped to one day see you again, she said. I always wanted to thank you.
What a gift her words are. What a blessing.
In her sharing I am reminded once again, we are all connected. And in that connection, everything we do makes a difference in how we are remembered in this world.
Let my connections always remind those I meet of kindness, compassion, caring and Love.
Like Ghandi, let me be the difference I want to create in the world. Let me be Love.