By Rochelle Long, MA, LMHC
As I drove by the streets in the city and noticed human beings sleeping on the ground with a blanket wrapped around them in the cold, the man on the corner staring blankly as if there was nothing left in his soul, and the woman dancing in the streets with no music playing; I began to ponder how this happened. I know some people say, “it’s drugs”, “these people are…”, “they chose to live this way”, etc. I wanted to look at this more closely and better understand why there are people living on the streets, with no place to go staring blankly. All these people share something in common; they are homeless, possibly on drugs, or possibly have mental health issues (or both); they are also a son/daughter, sister/brother, mother/father, friend, cousin, grandma/grandpa, they are ‘somebody to someone’. These people are human beings who have feelings and a story to tell. So, I began sitting down with them to hear their stories.
A woman described her story where she escaped domestic violence, left her children behind because she felt he would have killed her and their children. This woman had the courage to leave her children behind to save them and herself. She was not being selfish, she was not thinking about herself; she was thinking about her family and leaving the man who tried to kill her. She stated, “he can hit me all he wants, but I refuse to allow him to continue to beat me down emotionally; I am a good person.”
Another man lost his job making six figures after he came home and found his wife with another man. He started to drink every night to heal the emotional pain, he started to slack at work, drink more alcohol and dabble with other drugs; and eventually lost everything. His eyes were blank, yet he wanted help so he could find himself again. He still had a small twinkle in his eye to find hope.
A male talking to himself and others telling people the FBI is after him and he needs to get to the post office before they find him. People stared at him strangely and his paranoia increased. He was begging for help, crying and yet he was ignored and laughed at.
A female in her 30’s was dancing in the middle of the streets appearing to be clueless others were watching. She was in another world, one may say. When she came to the sidewalk. I inquired about her life. She reported hesitantly she once had a husband and three children, with a big house and white picket fence. After she and her son were in a serious car accident where a semi truck side swiped her small car, her youngest child died at the age of 3, and she was seriously injured. She recalls this time to be blurred and painful. As she suffered in pain, both emotional and physical, she could not get past the death of her three-year-old son. She was discharged from the hospital three months later with 80 pain pills and some physical therapy. She and her husband grew apart and her two other children were distant from her. She didn’t know how to cope so she lived on pain pills and slept. Once the pain pills wore off, her doctors refused to provide anymore; so she found heroin. She hesitantly said, “I was not one of those drug seekers, I was in pain both physically and emotionally, and a skeleton of myself. I was no longer there, rather an existence of myself.” She reported the heroin took over and she used methamphetamines during the day so she could care for her children and “get by.” Her husband had thrown himself into work and she was home.
I sat down with a 70 year old man who I could barely understand because he spoke gibberish, but I understood he had served in the Navy during Vietnam, he had a PhD in Engineering, he lost his wife and children in a house fire and had recently been beaten while sleeping outside. He had a kind soul, laughed at his whimsical nonsense, and his eyes lit up when he spoke about a warm plate of food. He said he had been living on the streets for 30 years and was always moving to stay warm and safe. Although he was an honorable veteran (he showed proof of his DD214 that read ‘honorably discharged’; he still lived on the streets and his demeanor and speech was like talking to a 10 year old in a 70 year old body. His sleeping bag and bag of items were next to his bike and he gracefully requested that he needed to leave so he could find his ‘bed’ for the night outside. He politely said “thank you” and rode away on his bike.
These stories are real, these are human beings who have a story and reasons why they are on the streets homeless wondering around trying to find something to bring them a moment of peace. People are too busy looking at them, making a judgement rather than a hand up or simple prayer, staring at them while they act strangely or stay away because they are dirty. What happened to our community where people cared for others, even strangers and offered a helping hand or a kind word?
I may not have the answers to the questions above, rather than a reflection about how every human being deserves a chance. These streets that I drive on and see people of all races, sexual orientation, backgrounds, socioeconomic status, etc. have a story to tell. Majority of these people did not intend to end up homeless, on the streets, and some participating in illicit drugs to make the days go by easier. Rather, they ended up on the streets because of life circumstances. Every individual and family I spoke to had a story to tell. Some were waiting to be housed, possibly the 780th in line for housing. Other ones were waiting for treatment, or didn’t know where to seek help. While others reported, they keep trying to find help, work, etc. and unable to locate the resources. As many people said, “I find a job easy, but cannot hold the job because they don’t have an address, reliable transportation, an alarm clock, trespassed in the area, and the list goes on. Rather than thinking about what movie they are going to watch, or what they were going to eat for dinner; they worried about where they were going to sleep for the night without being beaten, frozen, trespassed, or have their stuff stolen.
After many weeks spending time speaking with individuals and families who were homeless, I reflected about my own misjudgments about people who were living on the streets. They were not monsters; they were human beings trying to survive on the streets. They had life circumstances that negatively impacted their lives, made wrong choices, lost their jobs, turned to drugs and alcohol, had mental health issues, etc. I know I have had my share of negative events in my life and thankfully have a roof over my head, food to eat, and a family to go home to. As I reflected about the people I met and how they ended up homeless, I realized how important it is to enjoy every moment, through the good and bad; and not take life for granted.
I did not write this article for negative comments or judgements, I wrote this article based on my experience meeting people who are homeless in the greater Seattle area and listened to their stories. I wanted to share my experience with others and what I learned. Thank you for reading. And may we humble ourselves when we walk or drive by someone who is homeless, especially during the holiday season and cold months, and remember they are human beings who have a story to tell.