Tuesday night was a restless one for me. I had gone to bed early. I had a good book. I lay there reading, the rain pattering down on the roof of my attic bedroom. I was cozy in my European-style pillow top bed, the dog snoring gently. My thoughts went out to my adult children and I wondered if they were still out on this dismal evening, so I texted them. They were both home. That’s nice, everyone is safe and warm. But they’re not, are they?
I wondered what it must be like to be homeless on a night like this. Where do you go? The rain gets into everything, seeping through the cracks in bus shelters and doorways, oozing through the brick under the bridges. Even if your refuge is relatively free of rain, the damp and cold find their way to your very bones.
I’m not unaware that there are homeless people in this city. I think most people are aware of that fact. But let’s face it: Once we get home from work and close the door, we forget. The logistics of homelessness are immense. Think about what you can’t do when you’re homeless: No stocking up on groceries, nowhere to bathe, no beds to tuck your kids into at night, and no door to lock to keep you safe.
A few years back, I drove a city bus. I was low in seniority so I drove the worst routes deep into the night. People who were so obviously homeless would get on my bus, padded out in heavy clothing, with gnarled hands and black nails. They would lean in to ask if they could ride for free and I would nod my head and back they would go. It was of course shocking to see, but it was what you expected a homeless person to look like.
Then there were the young women with babies getting on the bus at 2 a.m. — skinny, inappropriately dressed, the baby sound asleep in a cheap stroller. My heart would leap with anxiety. In the summer the young man, brushing his teeth in the bus shelter as I came to a stop, waved me on — that was his room for the night. An old lady slept every night I worked in a bus shelter on Nicollet Avenue, her brightly colored tote bag stored neatly under the seat as she slept.
These are all examples of homelessness we all see at some time or another, but there are others. I volunteer for a battered women’s advocacy group. Recently I had my first call. My victim told me she had suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse, and mental abuse. She was ready to leave her situation. She wanted to go to a shelter. I called around but there was no space, no room at the inn. She would go back to her abuser; he was better than being homeless.
My church hosts homeless families three times a year. We feed and shelter anywhere from six to 20 people for a week at a time. The majority are kids; they stay at the shelter during the day, or go to school. Many of the parents have jobs. Everyone comes back to the shelter in the early evening, and then everyone is bused to the church to eat and sleep. They all have a story to tell. Some are there because they screwed up, others because society does not make it easy for them to climb out of their misfortune. But they all want the same thing: a chance to make a good life for themselves and their children. At the end of the week they move on to the next church.
I complain about something every day. We all do. But we, and you know who you are, we are lucky. Our cities are not being bombed; we are not forced to flee with only what we can carry, uncertain of where we will sleep, or when our next meal will be.
It will be cold soon in Minneapolis; I hear this will be a hard winter. So I challenge you to make a difference, however small. “Don’t judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”
Katrina Stamboulieh lives in Minneapolis.