Whenever I walk into my neighborhood library, I run into a man. His tattered clothes, long scraggly beard, and excess bags reveal his identity as a homeless man.
A few blocks away, I often see another homeless man sitting on a bench outside the train station. He, too, looks like your stereotypical image of a homeless person: Long, white beard; Old, disheveled clothing; A thick coat; And excess bags to carry all he owns with him at all times.
During the summer, I also frequently see a slightly overweight, bald woman walking down Main Street. I recognize her from PADS and know that she, too, is homeless.
All three of these individuals live on the margins of my community and on the margins of society. In many ways, they remain other. Though our paths frequently intersect, I do not know their names, nor do they know mine. Though I've served them each at PADS before, I also do not know their stories. I don't know what factors contributed to their homelessness or what keeps them trapped there.
Despite the fact that they remain other, because I recognize these individuals, I, like many others, tolerate their presence.
Such an attitude actually represents a considerable shift for me, a softening towards this homeless population. As someone who grew up in Chicago, I was taught by the media and society to fear the homeless. I grew up believing such people were not only marginal, but also unworthy – unable to hold down a job or contribute to society in any meaningful way. Until recently, I believed homelessness was their choice; That if they worked hard enough they could find a job and get back on their feet.
After years in ministry, I now know that like so many other seemingly black and white issues, homelessness is actually extraordinarily complex. I also know that the men and woman I described earlier may well be the stereotypical image of homelessness in my community, but they are not in our nation, where children make up a growing percentage of the homeless population.
I know these things largely through my youth ministry's involvement with a local organization called Bridge Communities, which exists to connect homeless families to a better future. Each year, my youth ministry participates in an event called Sleep Out Saturday, where we sleep outside the first weekend in November in order to raise money and awareness to fight homelessness in our community.
This year, as part of this event, a single mom from Bridge Communities came and spoke to my students, sharing her story of homelessness, faith, and survival. She brought her four children with her. The oldest attends one of the local high schools and is actually in an Advanced Placement class with several of my youth group kids.
After this family left, several of my students shared how despite the fact they've sat in class with this girl for two and a half months, they never realized she'd been homeless. It was a powerful moment – the moment in which homelessness suddenly became real to my students and leaders; The moment in which homelessness stopped being about people who are other and instead became a problem affecting people like us.
In that moment it became clear to me why relationships matter. Without them, it's human nature to marginalize the other. But once we actually know the name, face, and story of the other, it becomes impossible to relegate them to the margins of our schools, communities, or societies; It becomes impossible to merely tolerate their presence.
Relationships compel us to love one another, in word and deed. They compel us to break down the barriers that separate us so that we no longer see us vs. them, but rather one community, who rejoices with and shares in one another's sorrows. Relationships remind us that true value, true worth comes not from what we bring to society, but from our shared identity as people created in the image of God. As Proverbs 22:2 says, “The rich and the poor have this in common: The Lord is the maker of them all.”
I pray that this – not fear – will govern each and every interaction my students and I have with the homeless men and women on our streets as well as the homeless kids in our classrooms and that as a result, the margins of our communities will slowly grow smaller until we can no longer differentiate the other from us.
This post was written as part of SheLove's November LinkUp on Margins.