When I first started this gig around five years ago, I must admit that I was pretty judgmental of the homeless.
I came from a background of if you don’t work, you don’t eat, take personal responsibility for your life and if you want a job you can find a job.
I considered myself a compassionate and forgiving person and wanted to give something back to the small town that had given us so much.
But I sure wasn’t prepared for the mind-blowing experience I was in for.
I knew that I was going to be dealing with alcoholics and addicts of various kinds. With people with a poor work ethic and too lazy to go out and get a job.
But one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the shocking number of mentally ill people who were coming in. People who were incapable of holding down even the simplest of jobs. Many of whom you couldn’t even hold a conversation with.
And there were also many who had such low self-esteem and life had beaten down so much that it made my heart ache to even see them after hearing their stories.
Some have debilitating physical conditions, some have no relatives and are ‘too old’ to work and others lack the education, skills and mental capacity to hold down a ‘real’ job.
What I have found out is that each of them has a story; even those who have serious addictions have many times suffered such devastating personal losses that it is hard not to empathize with them and their condition. Without a strong personal faith and with nowhere else to turn, they took the path of least resistance and tried to drown out their sorrows.
In many cases we fear the homeless. We fear their condition because we don’t want to end up like them. We fear the stereotypical violence that they could cause. We fear to allow ourselves to get too close to them in case their ‘disease’ might rub off.
When they ask for money, we quickly walk by them with our heads down pretending we didn’t hear them.
In nearly 43 percent of U.S. cities, you can be arrested for sleeping in your car, sitting on a curb, or begging in certain public areas. In Hawaii, state Sen. Tom Brower smashed homeless people’s shopping carts with a sledgehammer.
These policies and practices show a glaring lack of empathy and understanding of this situation.
A project entitled Rethink Homelessness is trying to humanize their condition by having them hold up signs writing one surprising fact about themselves.
Around Silver City, you would read signs like
- “I used to be concert pianist and played at Carnegie Hall.”
- “I was an electrical engineer at NASA for the first moon landing.”
- “I had five strong sons but I lost all of them in various wars and now I have no one.”
- “I was a runner up for pole vault in the Olympics.”
- “I taught Philosophy at Harvard.”
I’ve learned a lot since I first started and am now not so quick to judge my brother. As the old proverb goes, ‘don’t judge another until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.’
“Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.
There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.
Don’t sneer at the man who is down today
Unless you have felt the same blow
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.
You may be strong, but still the blows
That were his, unknown to you in the same way,
May cause you to stagger and fall, too.
Don’t be too harsh with the man that sins.
Or pelt him with words, or stone, or disdain.
Unless you are sure you have no sins of your own,
And it’s only wisdom and love that your heart contains.
For you know if the tempter’s voice
Should whisper as soft to you,
As it did to him when he went astray,
It might cause you to falter, too.
Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.
Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.
Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.
Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.”
~ Mary T. Lathrap
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