Homeless By Choice?

Keith Wasserman 2014 photoBy Keith Wasserman

As some of you may already know, since 1989, I have been spending several days every few years living among people who experience homelessness in different cities in the United States. I go to live on the streets to expand my perspective and understanding of the situation people without homes are in. Here are some of the other reasons I go:

  • I want to have my reservoir of compassion replenished! Like anyone, I can become insulated to the reality of the pain, uncertainty and fear that people without homes experience. I go to the streets have my compassion renewed.
  • As a Christian, I believe that since Christ incarnated himself into our world in order to be a bridge for men and women to have a relationship with their maker, we too then, must incarnate ourselves into the world of those whom we care about in order to understand how they think and how they feel in order to really love and help them.
  • To feel with in order that I might better understand and create structures and environments for others to serve in ways that are safe, meaningful and helpful.
  • To re-evaluate how we are serving people who experience homelessness at Good Works–to explore what we may need to change and how to go about doing that.
  • To know what it’s like to be on the receiving side. This helps me to gain renewed perspective on the feelings of strangers. (Exodus 23:9)

In Lexington, Kentucky I learned about and experienced FEAR. I learned that going into a shelter and spending the night with strangers day after day in FEAR wears down the body’s natural defenses and makes one vulnerable to sickness and mental breakdown. I learned that it is FEAR that often makes a person compromise their own moral and ethical standards to survive. I stayed with 150 men plus women and children for 3 days on the floor of the gym in a Salvation Army. I slept next to a man with a knife. The only reason I knew he had a knife is because I watched him threaten to stab another man earlier in the day. Fear changes one’s personality and affects a person’s life choices. Prolonged fear can turn you into someone you don’t like and don’t want to be with. Could it be fear that prompts some people to lie in order to survive?

In Charleston, West Virginia I learned that the system of sheltering people who experience homelessness tends to caters to the chronic and not the those in crisis. I felt treated like an alcoholic and a drug addict. I didn’t have proper identification and when I went to the Police to obtain the I.D. the shelter staff wanted, the police wouldn’t give me any proof that I had been there. I returned to the shelter and the staff implied that I was lying. I felt caught in the middle. I felt misunderstood. It was in Charleston that I befriended an un-employed pimp. I learned how to listen to the voices from the streets; the voices of men and women who are survivors in a world in which they see little opportunity.

In Indianapolis, Indiana I learned that time is the enemy of the homeless. It seems like there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. So much idle time to get depressed. So little hope. Yes, you can work hard for 8 hours at minimum wage but you spend each days earned income to meet the needs of each day. I learned that it is very difficult to save money when you live on the streets. When you do earn money, you become a target for others to steal, exploit or beg you to give some to them. People are in a rut and need someone to pull them out. It is this sense of hopelessness that often tempts people to medicate themselves with drugs to relieve the pain.

In Cincinnati, Ohio I learned that there are many complex rules in shelters that are not clear. I remember getting yelled at for doing something I didn’t realize was inappropriate. We were staying overnight in a room with 50-75 men. The rules said “no smoking” but that didn’t stop people from smoking. I went to the staff and asked if I could have a pillow. The staff told me there was no pillow available. After I left the streets, I looked up their web site and discovered a large pillow as their symbol of welcome. How ironic.

In Louisville, Kentucky I stayed the night with about 60 men in a converted Holiday Inn. We had to pass through a metal detector. The rules appeared to be 8 pages, single spaced and were located behind a glass case. On the wall in the dining room were 3 large posters about diabetes but there appeared to be no relationship between the instructions on the poster and the only food option we were served. My intake interview was done while I stood up at a desk and people stood behind me. There were many things to read and sign but I was not given the time I needed to read them before I had to signed them. I felt the pressure to just sign my name to something I had not read nor understood. Late at night, one man wouldn’t (or couldn’t) stop talking while the other men were trying to go to sleep. Finally, one of the residents next to him became so exasperated by his constant talking that he got up, offered a few emotional words and told the staff what was going on. Two staff workers came in to the room and made many vile, emotional threats to the man who was experiencing some kind of mental illness. I remember being very surprised at how the staff handled that man. I would characterize my entire experience in Louisville as dehumanizing.

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I learned…

In Akron, Ohio I learned about the need for privacy and loss of identity. Privacy is a commodity purchased by those who have money. The more money one has the more privacy one can purchase. The less money you have, the less privacy you can obtain. We need privacy to maintain our mental health. I remember feeling like there was no place to go where I could be alone, to be by myself. We were always around others who were constantly talking, people whocould potentially take advantage of us. This low level stress combines with physical sickness to make a person behave strangely. No wonder some of the homeless appear mentally ill.

I also learned about the loss of identity. When we lose a sense of who we are, we lose the realization of the image of God upon us and our purpose in this world. The loss of family and work confuses our identity. We become vulnerable to the seduction of a new identity; the identity of a bum; unattached from the network of accountability and purpose which fosters real human growth. Having a family (or “a people”) gives us a sense of identity. Having work gives us–especially men–a sense of identity and purpose. Being loved gives us a sense of identity. I saw the loss of family, the loss of work and the loss of love, and with these things, the loss of identity.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma I learned…

In Jacksonville, Florida I learned that while there are many good and caring people on the front lines of helping the homeless, the problem of homelessness doesn’t seem to be getting much better. I stayed in a city with an estimated 3000 homeless people. I went to shelter after shelter looking for a bed. Only by accident (or by God’s grace) was I able to find a place to sleep. Homelessness continues to be the result of a collision of personal choices and societal systems beyond one’s control.  People without a home are often caught in a nightmare of social oppression combined with the learned coping habits of survival.

This year marks my 37th year with Good Works. I am aware more than ever before how these experiences have helped me to more fully understand that those who experience homelessness are people; human beings made in the image of God; people who in many ways are not much different from myself. Over the years, I have learned that for any of us to understand and help people who are suffering, we must lean how to leave the comfort of our own security and reach out, perhaps incurring some personal risk and pain. As a Christian, I now more fully understand what Christ Jesus has done for me. I am grateful and I want to continue to turn my gratitude into a godly activism.

Keith Wasserman

Keith speaks about 80-100 times a year around the US about Good Works and on many topics related to homelessness, poverty and the churches responsibility to love God and love people.

This talk is called HOMELESSNESS: THE VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE Part 1 and Part 2. Both parts were given at Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois.

To invite Keith for speaking engagements, e-mail him at keith@good-works.net or phone 740.541.0816.