Thursday, May 12, 2011

We Have Met The Homeless, and They Are Us

The sirens blared but few even turned their heads. With the White House only a block away one would think every gun would be drawn, every pedestrian hugging the ground. But only the tourists showed interest. It is a non-occurrence for a homeless man to need emergency care. This homeless man was fortunate; his massively swollen leg had triggered compassion in someone who cared enough to call for help. Each year many of his “neighbors” die while sleeping on grates near taxpayer supported government buildings.

How have we come to this? This is not the vision of America we carry in our minds. Homeless men dying on our streets? An anomaly? A recent, temporary phenomenon that a well conceived government program could alleviate?

Not so. Homelessness is as old as the human race. Our oldest ancestors became homeless, locked out by their Father for refusing to live by His rules. Their oldest son became a murderer, a fugitive, a wandering homeless man. The father of the Hebrew people was a homeless man, as was his son and his grandson after him. The Son of Man declared he had “no place to lay his head.” The most poignant story Jesus ever told, we call “The Prodigal Son,” a story of homelessness. Homelessness is as human as flesh and blood. The entire world lives one second from homelessness, one earthquake, one tsunami, one tornado, one fire, one illness, one recession away.

And yet we aspire to “make a home” for ourselves and our children. We pray that they will provide one for their sons and daughters. The horror of every parent is the possibility that their child will choose, or have forced upon them, a homeless life; that they will be denied, or forego, the security of a career and the stability it provides.

Our mother must have feared that her children would become rootless. We lived in poverty, next door to homelessness. Any day in my youth I could walk to a hobo camp with fresh ashes and debris from a recent encampment of transient men, riding the rails, coming from nowhere, and going nowhere. Occasionally a ragged man would appear at our back door asking for a cup of coffee. Mom knew that he really meant “a meal.” I don’t remember her ever refusing to provide one. The men were never invited in – I don’t know if they would have accepted such an invitation. They seemed happy enough to enjoy their food and coffee seated on the back step.

I remember one such man whose manner fascinated me. He ate his food leisurely, and sipped his coffee with relish, ending each draught with a loud exhalation, “Haaaaa!” There was a romantic air about him; he was almost gentry, except for the rags.

Later that evening the family was eating at the dining room table. My drink, alas, was not coffee. (Except on Christmas morning [and during surreptitious trips to the Railroad CafĂ© with my brother, Marvin] coffee was forbidden to us boys; it was thought to stunt a child’s growth.) Instead I had either water or milk, I don’t recall which. But with every sip I emulated my new hero with a pronounced, “Haaaaa!” Mom must have observed the hobo’s manners too that day and recognized my attempt to emulate them. I was quickly informed that polite people don’t make those noises when they drink. That was news to me; my hero did. But I knew enough to comply with the rules of the table where I was fed.

I think, though, upon reflection, that my mother’s real concern was that I would be drawn away to a hobo’s life, ending up a homeless child, riding the rails, and sipping begged coffee with elegant relish. It is the unspoken fear of every mother.

And she was right to fear. I have lived my life, a homeless son of Adam, like all those who “ride the rails” with me. But I have come to realize that the food I beg from door to door is nothing to savor, nothing to sigh over; it is really pig’s food, and I am on my way back home, to a banquet at my Father’s house, never to be homeless again.

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