At the end of every school year, the teachers where I work usually get a bonus check. This year was one of those occasions. I always donate this annual gratuity to one or more charities. I decided this year I would give the proceeds to a service provider for the homeless in Salt Lake City, but which one?
After giving it much thought, I reasoned in my sometimes discombobulated mind that the most effective modus operandi to determine which non-profit organization (NPO), serving the homeless in Salt Lake City, most deserved my appropriations was to “hit the streets” and find out first-hand for myself.
I began by doing some research after talking to an old friend. He was my boss in the Utah Army National Guard. This individual is also a retired Salt Lake County deputy sheriff. I made a decision to concentrate my efforts between the streets of 2nd and 13th south and west of State Street to I-15. I spent four days in this grid observing and talking to the homeless and the NPO’s which serve them.
I won’t attempt to write about the many experiences and conversations I had with these “street” people. However, I will convey a few thoughts, experiences, and reflections, in short, bullet-point snippets. I also took some pics of the homeless, with plans to create a photo gallery, but decided not to because of privacy rights, issues of dignity, and self-respect on their behalf.
- A common thread I found, for the dozen or more individuals I was able to engage in a straightforward conversation, was the absence of a safety-net or lifeline from parents, relatives, or friends when it was needed most in their lives. I recall times in my life when I was either in a predicament or experiencing hardships. Fortunately for me, I had numerous safety-nets to rescue me; primarily my parents. I thought how different the lives of these homeless individuals could have been if there had been just one lifeline available. A lifeline without judgment or exactions of consequence at that critical juncture in their lives.
- “Will work for food!” Yes, I tried that gig if for no other reason than just for the experience of it. This endeavor only lasted about an hour. I primarily quit because I didn’t get any donations. I also realized that I probably didn’t have the tell-tale signs of actually being homeless. Besides, I gleaned the reality that I was basically “blind” to those individuals in their vehicles. I know when I pass panhandlers in my car I tend to ignore them too.
- Twice I was propositioned by women who I am sure were turning tricks to buy drugs. It was quite evident to me they were addicts. I tried to engage each of them in conversation. However, when they inferred there was no interest on my part in having a “party” they quickly moved on.
- I ascertained from this experience that there are many more homeless people living on the streets in Salt Lake City than I had imagined. While talking to a middle-aged homeless guy named Chris, I brought up this observation. He said the number of homeless in Salt Lake City was about average for a city that size. Chris relayed to me that he just got back from traveling the west coast and that there are far more homeless in the northwest than people are aware. He said that in cities like Seattle, WA, and Eugene, OR there are thousands and thousands of homeless living on the streets and in encampments.
- While on the streets interacting with the homeless, I often had a reoccurring thought… a phrase made famous by President John F. Kennedy, “There, but for the grace of God, go I…” (John Bradford). This experience also reinforced a character trait that I’ve been working hard on. Which is not to judge others… judgment is a love killer!
A New Paradigm
In conclusion, I now better understand why homelessness is such a difficult issue to address. It involves many entities with few feasible solutions that serve everyone’s interests. At any rate, what I learned from my experiences this past week is to consider more carefully how I view those who I feel are less fortunate than myself. Also, to guard against the many assumptions I ofttimes make about the various circumstances of particular individuals.
In addition, I can more poignantly recognize and empathize with the plight of the homeless. Based on this experience, I more fully realize the importance to not judge anyone based on my ethics, socio/economic status, values, political persuasions, and religious beliefs.
I have also learned, to a greater degree, the need to be more resolute in removing all assumptions and stereotypes I sometimes tend to form of others. It is so necessary to just view all individuals as children of God. There is no “one person” any more or less important than anyone else in the “big scheme” of things. As such, it is paramount that we treat everyone with the dignity and humanity they have a right to.