You are the homeless

I found myself crying over my kitchen sink as I made coffee this morning. Like, sobbing crying, even. I can be honestly accused of being over emotional by times, but this episode caught me by surprise.

I had just finished reading that St. Mary’s Cathedral has decided to uninstall a system that dumped water on the homeless folks that sought shelter in its doorways at night. Or, more precisely, I’d just stepped away from the comments after the article.

Now, I’m aware that many content-producer types avoid comment sections, but I’m drawn to them like a masochist to a whip. I try my hardest to avoid actively participating — one only has so much time in a day — but I really like to know how people feel about a topic, and the knowledge they offer up on any particular subject can be enlightening. I’m usually smart enough to know when to just shake my head and walk away. Not today. Not in the face of the callousness on display.

People were defending the actions of the church, to install the sprinkler system in the first place, in the face of what would seem like damning facts. Not many people, but some. They did so by pointing out that the church does operate homeless shelters. And also by denying the humanity of the distressed people who didn’t avail themselves of these opportunities. It seems those in the most need of compassion are the easiest to dismiss.

It’s not my place to shame these commenters — a practice I find as helpful and productive as name calling. But for Christ’s literal sake, how can you call yourself a Christian and have a complete lack of understanding of His message of love? How can one who volunteers at soup kitchens, as one commenter claimed, lack empathy for those who take advantage of this service?

I haven’t been a Christian for over thirty years, but when I was a teenager I read the bible through several times, memorized a good number of its chapters, heard it preached and expounded on four or five times a week. I feel I have a decent understanding of the message in the gospels. It taught me a lot.

What probably taught me more, at least about empathy, was intermingling with the less fortunate. Street people, alcoholics, the mentally sick. The “homeless.”

I’ve been relatively poor most of my adult life. That’s not a boast or a complaint. It’s just the path I’ve found myself on. I was on welfare my final two years of high school after being kicked out of my home for “sinning” (I lost my virginity, couldn’t find it again).

Later, after getting a loan and bursary to attend art school, I became a regular at the community soup kitchen, where I broke day-old bread with the truly poor of that smallish town. Most were alcoholics and native American, spurned by society. They didn’t pay me much mind as we wolfed down hot meals, usually spaghetti or stew, with a side bowl of thin, tomato-based soup. Though I would spend the afternoon in class, and they would mostly trek across the long concrete bridge back to the reserve across the river, for a half hour or so we were pretty much equals.

I dropped out of that photography program and got a job as a taxi driver, unable to afford to return for a sophomore year. Several career ups and downs after that, I was on welfare again, singing in the subway and on the streets of a large city.

I often thought there wasn’t a lot of difference between me and the wild-eyed guy, with matted hair and several years of dirt on his neck, standing at the top of the escalators that fed the underground train system. He had a cap to collect change from passing strangers, I had a guitar case. Save for a plot twist, I could have just as easily been him.

A street guy named Eddie, I couldn’t help but admire, used to stalk people down the sidewalk of my hip neighborhood, reciting poetry he’d composed in hopes of some coins or an offer of food. His rhymes were rudimentary, but his heart was on display with every shouted line.

One day, his cherubic, irrepressibly cheerful face had a bandage over his left eye. Like it was just “one of those things that happens,” he told me he’d lost it. He’d been attacked, and now only had a disfigured socket where once lived a beautiful orb graced with a brown iris. His new look didn’t help his ability to survive and within a few months he disappeared from his regular haunts. Probably from the earth.

Growing up, I was called Eddy — from my middle name Edwin, to avoid confusion with my father, also Domenick. This Eddy and that street poet Eddie weren’t so different. We both were often in need of help. We both, as much as anything, yearned for the recognition of our individual humanity. A hug, a smile, an understanding nod of the head.

Excuse me, I’m crying again.

I can’t change much about this world. I’m still cash poor and lack political power beyond a single vote. I can’t ask anyone else to do much either. I can only beg that we all try to see beyond addictions and missed baths and shit-stained pants and recognize that we are they, they are us, and we all need the compassion and love preached by Jesus in the bible.