It was a Saturday morning and there were close to fifty volunteers who gathered at a homeless shelter in Riverside, CA ready to give out hygiene care packages and offer free showers, haircuts, clothes, and food. Eager medical students and physician assistants provided free health care screening and visits. Efforts like these are fairly common — nothing groundbreaking.
I decided there were enough hands on deck for the morning roles and duties and instead grabbed a bag of burritos; I took it outside. I started walking the street outside the shelter, asking whoever I passed if they wanted one. I started talking to them to better understand how we, as a society, can help. The responses I got were not unfamiliar as I’ve heard similar through six years of working with the homeless population in San Diego. But they are heart-breaking nonetheless.
Some common themes arose: folks felt like a plague to society and as if they are animals on exhibit for people to come and go as they please, taking photos for publicity and helping in order to make themselves feel good. One person put it simply, “We’re human beings too.” Many others emphasized the shortcomings of short-term help, leaving the homeless feeling human for a day — with a shower, haircut, food — only to be reminded the very next day and every day following that they are considered less than.
One person shared their personal story with me: “When I was 12 my mom left me on the side of the road and told me she would come back for me — she never did.” This feeling of abandonment is not unfamiliar within the homeless population. Many other folks shared concerns and frustrations about the city putting more money into getting rid of them rather than helping them. Hearing these commonalities led to a realization: as a society, we must stop breaking trust. We must stop making empty promises. We must stop saying we are going to come back only to abandon our neighbors on the side of the road.
The day finished, and as I walked out of the shelter a homeless man stopped me and asked how often we do this. As an honest response, I tell him not often enough and that we should do it more. Another homeless man joined the conversation and said if services were available and accessible, they would utilize them. A third homeless man in the lobby encouraged me and my team that was present that day to come back.
Homelessness reduces life expectancy by almost 20 years when compared to the housed population. No other single determinant compares. As of 2017 data, there are over 500,000 people experiencing homelessness. This is not a new problem nor is it a problem we as a society have been effectively addressing.
Without a doubt, homelessness is a complex issue — not one that we can or will solve overnight. What we do need to start doing is following through. The trust we earn we must keep. This requires a long-term commitment to serving and partnering with the homeless.
If we only serve the homeless populations when it is convenient for us, then it is inherently more about us than it is about them. In order to serve the homeless we must enter into the suffering with our neighbors, not run from it, not make excuses but rather be committed. We must see them and value them as equals and as human beings. Because after all, “We’re human beings, too.”