Holidays seem to bring about a profound change in people. The same ones who had been stuck to a TV screen and could barely make it back to the refrigerator, are now running around stores with gust. People who have not remembered you for months send you cards and gifts, and everyone seems to be trying hard to find a way to communicate and show love. Ethnicity doesn’t seem to matter as everyone in their own way tries to join in the fun. There is Christmas, Kwanza, Hannukah, and those of us who don’t feel connected to any of the above, are happy to buy presents for those who do. It is a season of hope, of optimism, and above all, a time for joy.
As a writer, I gather some of my best character notes during this time. For some reason, I’ve noticed this year “Charity” seems to be on everyone’s mind and for once, the spotlight seems to be on our homeless citizens.
The other day I was having coffee with Amber. She is not divorced, but her husband of twenty-some years up and left without paying their overdue rent. She has no children and although she has mentioned a few relatives in Nashville; I have a feeling she is not in touch with any of them. Amber is not going to be homeless for long as she has contacted an agency and is hopeful about an upcoming domestic employment. “It’s not what I want, but for now it will afford me room and board. A start,” she says with a faint smile. Despite her unkempt appearance, she speaks eloquently and sounds educated – though I’ve never asked and she hasn’t volunteered the information.
Sad as her present situation may be, Amber is among the lucky ones. When she speaks of her estranged husband, there is no bitterness in her tone. “Gene drank his way out of our life,” she says – a possible reason why she will not touch alcohol. Each time we talk, I’m sadly reminded of a million others who lack Amber’s wisdom and are either unwilling, or unable to turn their lives around.
So many of us don’t bother to interact with the large segment of our society we’ve labeled “homeless,” a lonely title that allows us to feel superior. True as it may be that some of these people are directly responsible for ending up on the street, there are many more who don’t deserve such a grim destiny. But compassionate as we may be, the reaction of most of us is to build a glass wall and refuse to get involved. If a friend is abused, we offer her a shoulder to cry on. If a relative is evicted, we are glad to shelter them, and if someone we care about is broke, we may lend them money. But a homeless? The misconceptions are many. “Well, I’m not going to supply their alcohol, and anyways, he/she better take a bath first!”
A bath? Where? In shelters where they can be sexually molested? Where the air stinks? Where the food can make you sick? Amber takes a sip of her coffee. “In each one of those places there are already tenants who’ve established their position. Early settlers, if you will.” She chuckles. “No sooner have you found a corner to call your own than someone whispers in your ear, asking you to pay up, deal drugs, or worse.” A shelter, according to Amber, is anything but that. “I’d rather sleep on cold cement than put up with bed-bugs and God only knows what other bugs in there!”
So amber packs her frayed blanket, smelly clothes, and a green plastic cup in a rickety grocery cart and pushes her way from one street corner to another. She is happy to receive a few holiday offerings, but knows this won’t last. “It won’t be Christmas forever. I have to do something for myself.”
And she is. I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s infinite wisdom. “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”
Maya would be so proud of Amber.