Our Homeless Friends

Photo cred: Scott Wolford

I frequently park near the epicenter of homelessness in Salt Lake City in order to walk to the arena and watch the Utah Jazz play. I do this mainly because it’s convenient and free, but it also allows me an opportunity to observe the conditions there. The dozens of people congregated on the sides of the street in soiled clothes and surrounded by clutter is a humbling sight. Instead of avoiding this crowded street I purposely walk down it because I wish to not treat these struggling people as untouchables to bypass, but valuable people worth associating with.

This is not an easy mindset to maintain, after all they do not have a roof over their head or laundered clothes on their backs. Many of them look rough and some are certainly engaged in criminal activities. I admit that the imperfect person inside of me is not always able to easily cast aside all prejudice. This is why continual reminders like this walk are so beneficial for my perspective. My own father has always been an impressive example in this regard, as I’ve witnessed him make efforts to serve these people countless times.

One time we left a restaurant in LA with a bundle of leftovers and soon after my dad spotted a man and pulled the car over. We invited the man over and offered him our food. He accepted our offer but said: “Next time give a nigger a nickel.” Another time we encountered a young and recently homeless man. We asked if he would like to join us for food and swimming, but he graciously declined. To this day we rarely pass a homeless person without my dad pulling out his wallet and handing them cash. I usually tell him that this is counterproductive, to which he responds: “Maybe, but I need to help.”

In the last month I have had a couple run-ins with one homeless man in particular. He looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties and has long, unkept blond hair and a scraggly beard. He’s also short in stature and, for the ease of writing, I’ll call him Thomas. On the first occasion I almost hit him with my car. It was after the game had ended and it was dark outside and he walked out unawares into the middle of the road and into my lane. Fortunately I saw him in time and was able to stop and allow him to mosey back to the sidewalk before I proceeded.

On another occasion I parked my car before a game. I saw Thomas again, recognizing him from my near auto-pedestrian accident, and watched him for about a minute. My eyes watered and my heart ached as I watched him walk down the street. It was clear that he was either mentally ill or severely impaired by some substance. At that moment it’s as if there was a voice inside of me screaming, “These people need help!”

This is a hot issue in Utah right now, given the newly proposed homeless shelters. It seems that no one wishes to have a homeless facility in their figurative backyard. Many of these people have invested in their homes and, while they have a home, they have a real stake in the value of their home. Many of these people are concerned with the criminal elements of homelessness, especially when they visualize the specter of the street I’ve mentioned. Many of these people see a shelter, or resource center, as something that will place a heavy burden on their city and have negative consequences.

These are legitimate concerns. It’s not fair to paint these fellow-citizens with a broad bush. Some have labeled these people rich snobs or hypocritical Christians. Name calling and public shaming isn’t appropriate or helpful. As I’ve watched this process unfold, and some of the unsavory attitudes and rhetoric exhibited, I’ve felt less inclined to shame the poor public examples and more inclined to ask what I personally can do because I know that I can do more.

Thomas deserves better than his current situation. I once heard a fellow LDS missionary say: “During my mission I have tried to not see people as they are, but as who they are capable of becoming.” Can you imagine Thomas down the road? Maybe doctors could treat his illness or rehabilitation could treat his addiction. Maybe he could earn a degree and/or land a good job. Maybe he could lease an apartment or buy a house. Maybe he could meet a young woman and have a couple kids. Maybe he could run for political office or serve the community in some way. Do we really know his potential?

There was a recent article titled Inside the newsroom: Here’s the key to the homeless crisis, written about a colleague of mine named Pamela Atkinson: “She was honored Thursday for years and years of service to the homeless and poverty-stricken, a woman as comfortable having tea in a cardboard box with a friend living along the river as consulting with the governor on how to help. The key word is ‘friend’.” Pamela treats these people differently than most of us, she walks the walk of true kindness and friendship. To her they aren’t homeless people, they’re homeless friends. This distinction is incredibly important.

I once heard Governor Herbert say: “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” Among these many homeless strangers, there are many homeless friends we just haven’t met yet, including Thomas, or whatever his real name happens to be. The solutions to poverty and homelessness are complex, but the first step needs to be viewing them as friends in need instead of things of pity. When we recognize their value and potential it opens doors for us to genuinely serve them and lift them up. Let’s do more to step up.