What a Homeless Shelter has Taught me About Humanity and Love
Lessons and observations I’ve gained from Sacred Heart House
Dedicated to Ryan Eberle, who first introduced me to using the word “tribe” in my vocabulary two years ago. Thanks Ox, for showing me how important that word really is, and thank you for becoming part of my tribe :)
SACRED HEART HOUSE ❤
About three or four times a month I volunteer at Sacred Heart House (SHH), which is a homeless shelter for women and their children. The shelter is also open to women without children. I am a Program Assistant, and I help run the shelter from 6 pm to 10 pm. The shelter is an old and very massive Victorian-style house that was built in the 1930s in the oldest part of downtown Denver. It has been converted into offices with a spacious living room and dining room. There is a large kitchen with industrial appliances and a walk-in freezer and refrigerator, and also a heavily stocked pantry. Upstairs are ten women’s dorms each with a small couch, beds, and cribs for the little ones. They each have their own bathroom and shower. There are also modern laundry facilities upstairs for the residents, and laundry detergent is provided for them. For the little ones there is a back yard with a playground and space for them to run around and play and just be children. Sacred Heart House is cozy, homey, safe, and warm. It is truly a wonderful place for its residents to get some much-needed respite from living on the streets.
Dinner is provided every evening at 6 pm for the residents, so I oversee that dinner goes smoothly and that the women and children all get enough to eat. After dinner, each woman has a chore to do in order to clean up and put dinner away. Some do dishes, some put food away, etc. — it’s just like dinner at any other home. The large, cozy dining room at the shelter makes it so the residents can enjoy their dinner with their families and the other residents. Having chores to do helps the women re-acclimate to having a home and the responsibilities that come with that.
Sacred Heart House provides to its clients a 30 day residential housing program. What this means is that it is not a 24 hour emergency shelter — the women and children get to stay in a temporary housing situation for a month while desperately needed resources and housing are put into place for them. The end goal is to help each woman and child attain permanent housing, Medicaid, food stamps, clothing, school supplies, transportation by way of free bus tickets, and gainful employment — all of it in order to help them transition off the streets and to hopefully stay that way permanently. The ultimate end goal of SHH is to provide stability, love, kindness, and help to alleviate human suffering.
A significant percentage of the clients at SHH are young, black, low-income mothers. The racial disparity within the homeless population seen at SHH is shocking, infuriating and distressing. These are mothers with young children who are no different than other mother on the planet — they too just want to provide the best they can for their children. But because of the disparities between white and black demographics when it comes to financial stability (income), housing stability, our current prison populations, and educational advantages (poor black children growing up in poor black neighborhoods do NOT get the same level of education as affluent white children do — this is a fact, not my opinion), young black mothers are at the highest risk of becoming homeless.
Additionally, many — too many in fact — of the women are escaping abusive boyfriends or husbands. They literally have to go off the grid to save themselves and their children from further harm or even death. Their situations are serious, and so is the shelter’s desire to help them. It is truly heartbreaking to hear about some of the women’s stories and how they ended up homeless. Let’s not forget: everyone has a story as to how they ended up where they are in this life. We must always listen to someone’s story with understanding and an open heart.
JUDGEMENT HAS NO HOME HERE
Homeless populations are often tossed aside as if they are somehow “lesser than,” as if they are somehow not as human as you or I. Homeless individuals are also often judged as though they must possess some fundamentally flawed character traits:
they are lazy
they just want to mooch off the government
they don’t want to do anything to help themselves
they lack a moral and ethical compass
they are criminals
they are drunks (caveat to this one — I would probably drink too if I were homeless on the streets during freezing cold weather, just sayin’ — who knows how you or I would “cope” in this type of situation.)
Sometimes these statements are true. But more often than not, they are not true. No one wants to end up living on the streets. No one says to themselves, yeah, that’s a great idea. No one would ever, ever choose that life unless they are absolutely destitute, they are afraid for their lives, and/or they have nothing left but that.
Sometimes homelessness indeed does occur due to poor choices — drug addiction, alcoholism, mental/emotional instability, unstable relationships with others, unstable employment, etc. — but it is not our place to judge. An enormous percentage of the homeless population are addicts or mentally ill, or both — this is a fact. But let’s consider that most addicts turned to their drug of choice due to trauma they endured during childhood, as a way to self-medicate and “cope” with the pain. Furthermore, the number-one predictor of mental illness as an adult is childhood trauma. Who are we to judge how someone who was never taught any healthy coping skills chooses to dull their pain? Again, it is never our place to judge. It is our job as human beings to help alleviate deep suffering when we see it. And that is our only job when it comes to those less-fortunate.
WHAT HOMELESS CHILDREN CAN TEACH US ABOUT OUR HUMANITY, THE TECHNOLOGICAL SINGULARITY, AND THE PROGRESS BUBBLE
At any given time there can be up to fifteen children at the shelter. After dinner when the moms are doing their chores, I will sit with the children and watch them play (I LOVE THIS). There are a few white or Hispanic children too, along with the black children. Each and every time, they all start playing with each other. They share the toys, and sometimes they even help each other with the blocks or the puzzles. It is fascinating to watch this little microcosm of tiny people who don’t even know each other just getting along and laughing and playing together. Why can’t we as adults do this? Why do we grow up to become so hateful towards each other, so hateful towards other groups of people who are simply different than we are? Why can’t adults be more childlike in this sense and just get along and share and help, no matter what someone looks like, or what they have or don’t have?
Of course there are little scuffles when children play with each other. But an individual with more experience in life steps in and guides the process along to smooth over the scuffle and teach how to appropriately resolve conflict. This is how life should be whenever there are conflicts between groups of people. But we all know that things do not always work this way, and some adults even resort to name calling — the current Child in Chief is a great example of that. This is not the way to embrace a childlike approach to life and connecting with other humans.
Tiny people possess the wisdom and knowledge that we as adults tend to lose — that someone’s skin color does not matter. How little or how much someone has does not matter. Consumption has gotten ridiculously out of hand in this instant-gratification-corporate-greed-machine society. People simply have too much stuff and somehow our value as human beings is now based on how much stuff we have. Little ones do not care about this. They could care less about how much stuff you have or how much stuff they have. They just want to play with the stuff, and since we are social creatures from birth, tiny social creatures want to share the experience of playing with stuff with other tiny social creatures. This makes so much sense. And we as adults are not doing it.
Where is it exactly along the way that we lose the desire to want to share our stuff? We become hoarders of our stuff, and we stop sharing our stuff with others. Where along the way do we stop wanting to help others and we focus only on our own instantaneous and greedy wants? Why exactly do we as a society lose this innate desire to help and share what we have with others as we become adults?
Our survival as a species was dependent upon the innate ability and desire to share resources with the weaker individuals within a tribe. As long as one million years ago, individuals within tribes who had more resources (meat, shelter, fire, tools, and the ability to raise their young to adulthood), helped those within the tribe who had fewer resources. The ability to raise young offspring to survive until adulthood was often precarious if there was a lack of resources. Therefore, sharing resources and helping each other raise their young ensured that the tribe would remain successful. This in turn produced more adults who would then reproduce more offspring. And this cycle is what directly perpetuated our survival as a species — sharing and helping, raising each other’s young in a tribe where you have more opportunities to successfully survive than without the tribe…
We have become an individualistic society, where the needs of the individual are above the needs of the group.
Is this really working? I think about it often. And my answer is always no.
Technology and progress in this day and age (the Information Era) are indeed wonderful things — but they have in turn impeded the very way our brains are wired now as we become adults. Screens people, screens. Screens are literally causing the way our brains are wired to change. Neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form new neural connections and pathways) is quite possibly the most fascinating phenomena in the universe; however, it is also fundamentally changing how we behave as a species. The rewiring of our ancient limbic system (which is deeply embedded within our brains), and the rewiring of our neocortex (the highly evolved frontal cortex in humans) are both what is correlated with our loss of desire to want to share and help. There is an empirically researched and proven effect of how screens are rewiring our brains.
We are becoming addicted to our screens and the instant gratification that they give to us. Thus, we want to be instantly gratified all the time. Every time we experience instant gratification, we get a surge in dopamine in our brains — this is the “feel good” neurotransmitter that addicts become addicted to. We literally become addicted to the dopamine spike in our brains we get every time we experience instant gratification. This constant dopamine spike throughout the day is what is rewiring our brains (Oh my god I got ten new likes on Twitter). Because of this addiction, we then simply forget to care about others due to thrill of the dopamine rush. In turn, the direct effect of this addiction is that over time we are losing the desire to even think about others as much as we should.
The limbic system is responsible for emotions, laughter, learning, memory, aggression, hormone levels, blood pressure, hunger, thirst, and sexual behaviors. The neocortex (the frontal cortex part of the brain that evolved only in primates, and culminated much further within the human brain) is responsible for development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinite learning abilities. The neocortex is also what has enabled human cultures to develop. The elegant abilities of the limbic system and neocortex to rewire themselves (neuroplasticity) as we learn, grow and evolve as a species is beyond the scope of science to completely understand right now — thus we really have no idea just how malleable they are when it comes to their capacity to change over time. The reptilian brain is thought not to be quite as neoplastic, which is a very good thing because none of us would be alive if it were to drastically change (it controls heartbeat, breathing, and other unconscious physiological functions).
Having our faces in a screen for countless hours a day is causing an addiction which is therefore changing the way our brains are wired — specifically, the wiring of the limbic system and the neocortex — which in turn changes the way we behave as humans towards each other. The way we react emotionally and think and behave and even form culture today is vastly evolving away from how we used to engage in tribes a million years ago. This is not all bad, and of course it is all part of how species evolve over time (variation in the gene pool is necessary for species to survive)— but it’s not all good either. We need to face it, this is happening — this addiction to screens is a global pandemic. Screens are changing us as a species. The invention of all this technology and progress has caused us to become dependent upon it because we are addicted to it. And the more dependent and addicted we become upon outside entities of machines and virtual realities, the more we lose our humanity. Think Technological Singularity. And of important to note — technology and progress are bubbles. They get bigger and bigger and bigger until there is no more room to get bigger and they burst. This has happened to every civilization that has ever existed on this planet, and we are not exempt. We need to think about what we are doing as a species.
Ah but I digress. Back to tiny humans.
Tiny children’s brains are not yet wired for the technology and progress we as adults become acculturated to within this society of ours. Their brains still resemble our ancestors’ brains more than they do ours. This is why we see the playing, the sharing, the helping, the laughing, the absolute joy that even homeless children have with each other when they form their own little tribes. They will share toys, food, juice, and a sweater or a coat if one child observes that another is cold. Hello…humanity is calling, calling us back to the innocence of childhood and the purity of our humanity. Young children form tribes where they share resources and help, just like we did a million years ago. It’s innate to our species. We should really be spending less time with screens and more time with our tribes.
A LOT OF LOVE IN A LITTLE SHELTER
The house itself is massive, but because SHH takes whole families of mothers and children, the shelter can get filled up pretty quickly. There is room for about five families with children and three to four single women with no children if the shelter is at capacity. Hitting capacity is a regular thing in the fall and winter months — people start really needing shelter from the cold weather in Colorado. And a funny thing happens when there are lots of women and children together — they start forming their own community (tribe) within the shelter. They take care of their own. Now remember, these are individuals who have next to nothing, but they share what they have. The women share diapers, wipes, snacks, clothing, even child care. They will watch one another's children play together while certain tasks need to be accomplished. They will begin to deeply care for the other children in the tribe. They will begin to deeply care for each other and form friendships in which they finally have a stable relationship with another human being who truly gets their suffering. This is the single-most beautiful thing on the planet to witness — humans forming tribes and taking care of one another. Humans who literally have no stuff (some come to the shelter without even a toothbrush) somehow have more than any of the rest of us have collectively. How do they have more? Because somehow, in all their suffering and struggle to survive and struggle to keep their young offspring alive, they still have love. They still have that innate human desire to help and share. Think about it — when you have lost everything and you have nothing, you have one thing left. You still have your humanity. And our humanity is the ability to care, love, share, and help — despite your circumstances, and despite your suffering.
Let’s all be grateful today for what we have. You may have very little, like me. I don’t have a lot of stuff because I have been a low-income mother for over twenty years. I have no vehicle, I do not own my own home. But I have my humanity, and that is worth more than all the wealth and affluence on this planet put together. NO ONE can ever take your humanity from you — you can still love, help, share, and care no matter what you’ve been through in your life, no matter how little you think you may have. I am truly humbled by what I have seen and learned from the shelter. I am grateful that I am a human being who gets to love and care for others. I am grateful for all of you, who get to love and care for others too. I am so grateful for little children who teach us about love and how to care for another human being, if we just pay attention. This planet is theirs — so let’s remember to work hard to leave it in the best possible condition for them that we can. That means to leave behind a legacy of love for them.
Now go forth and own your day and love your tribe hard ❤
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