5 Life Lessons Homeless People Taught Me

Hint — it’s not about being grateful for what you have.

Mariana Gls
Mar 29 · 8 min read

“Be grateful for what you have” might be a lesson, but it’s not the point here. I know how irritating it can be when people throw that at other people’s faces, along with a “there is always someone worse off”—a soft way to imply, “stop complaining”.

It is true, yet we all have our own battles to fight and we should not compare them with anyone’s. Maybe this comparison contributes in some way to us feeling embarrassed when facing socially excluded people, pushing us to ignore homeless persons in the street. Yet many of them have a lot to teach us, in how they handle their problems and life in general. There is way more to learn than gratefulness.

When I was studying in Madrid, I was part of an association where I regularly spent time with homeless people. Each Thursday, with the same group of 3–4 volunteers, we spent a few hours walking by specific streets of the city. We usually met with the same persons —at least most of the time— along the route and stayed a moment with them.

Taking a step back, this experience changed my life in some way. Not only did I discover a completely different reality going on without us knowing much about it; I also learned lessons that can be applied to our everyday lives.

In fact, while was supposed to be the one helping them by volunteering, they gave me so much more.

Everyone Has Something to Share

Many homeless people are constantly ignored by passersby, despised, sometimes even insulted. They face social exclusion every single day, humiliation.

Yet these people, who are left behind, are human beings. This means they all have a story. They have values and hopes, strengths and flaws. They have something to share.

“Everybody has a story. And there’s something to be learned from every experience.” — Oprah Winfrey

In the beginning, it truly surprised me to notice the broad variety of topics we used to talk about with the homeless people we met every Thursday. We would talk about one’s love life, politics, beliefs, disillusions, life anecdotes, even about our exams.

We genuinely connected with some of them. Of course, not with everyone, but that’s the way life is. You meet people, connect with some, have a good moment with others. You sometimes share great moments with people you might never see again.

However, many times, a reason we don’t start a conversation with someone or genuinely engage in one, may be because we already convinced ourselves from the start that we are too different. This may have to do with fearing we won’t enjoy it. Yet conversations have the power to surprise in many ways; you never know where they might lead you.

Since I realized it, I try to let go of any misconceptions I have before engaging in daily conversations or getting to know new people, no matter how different we seem. I noticed that, sometimes, the people I would never have talked to before are the ones who bring the most unforgettable conversations.

I am not telling you to speak to the homeless people you see in the street. That’s up to you. But you can talk to people that seemed the opposite of you at first sight. It doesn’t mean you will connect or learn something each time, but it’s always worth it to see where it leads and listen.

It’s Okay to Feel Down Sometimes

On these weekly “routes”, we used to talk with a Polish man, Szymon, who didn’t speak Spanish well —nor English. We tried to communicate with the few words he knew, or using an online translator.

Some days, Szymon didn’t feel like talking. If we tried to insist on having a conversation, or knowing how he felt, he made it clear saying, “no problema, no problema”, making us understand he wanted to be left alone that day and didn’t want any “problem”.

Szymon just didn’t feel like pretending he was okay when he wasn’t, and there was nothing wrong with that. We understood: everyone has their bad days.

Why should we pretend to be okay when we feel down or angry, and take the risk to say something that might hurt someone? By telling people the truth about how we feel, we might make them more comprehensive when speaking under the influence of negative emotions.

Szymon had it all figured out. Then the days he was in a good mood, even without speaking the same language we managed to laugh together.

Some People Will Take Advantage of Your Kindness and Generosity

“The ideal man takes joy in doing favors for others.” — Aristotle

There was this Jamaican-Portuguese guy, who lived by himself in a dead-end small street. Yet he was never alone. Almost every week, we saw new faces with him. Sometimes they stayed a few weeks or months with him, sometimes only a couple of days.

Lloyd, the Jamaican-Portuguese man, is a caring and generous person. He works hard, day in and day out, to find casual jobs that don’t pay much. One night he was awakened by someone living in the apartments above who had put fire to his stuff.

Another day, he came back from his temporary job and most of his things were missing —although he used to carry the most important items in his bag. The people that had been living with him for several weeks already, and were supposed to stay there in the day to keep an eye on their respective stuff, were missing, and so were most of his belongings. They never came back.

Yet despite being disappointed in people, Lloyd never lost faith in them. He kept giving, unconditionally, part of his food, help, mental support, to those that came to him. When he was disappointed in someone, he always gave a second chance. But not a third one.

We have all seen it in our everyday life too, although not as serious. I am generally a kind person too, and I see how easily people try to take advantage of it. Colleagues, acquaintances, even random people. I generally help out, until I realize they are taking advantage of my kindness. I may be kind and generous, but I am not stupid.

You can be a nice person without letting others take advantage of you. The important thing is to be aware of it, without stopping being kind. Your kindness may be the glimmer of hope for someone.

Besides, when you are kind to others, it does you good. Research found that “altruistic behaviors are associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity”. Why wait?

“For it is in giving that we receive.” — Saint Francis of Assisi

A Little Attention Can Mean a Lot

By this, I am not talking about the good it made homeless people for us to spend time with them. We got to a point where we genuinely cared about them, and these moments meant a lot to us too.

Juan, one of the men we saw each week, lived in a social housing program —sorry if these are not the exact terms in English, but I guess you understand what I mean. Despite living a few metro stops away from the route we followed, Juan would never miss a day. We always stopped by at the same time ±30 minutes, so when the time was coming, he went to a street of our itinerary, met with the people he knew there, and waited for us to come. He was always excited to present us to new people around there, introducing us proudly as “his kids”.

Our relationship with Juan was simple, light. Yet sometimes, that’s all it takes to spend a nice moment, uplift your mood and change someone’s day.

There’s a powerful extract from a book written by a French homeless woman in the ’90s, Lydia Perréal, which title could be roughly translated as I am twenty and I sleep outside. There is no English version of this book, but the sentence goes something like that:

“As for real smiles, those that touch the heart, they are either rare or full of pity. But we don’t need no pity, we only need love.”

It can be applied to anyone. No one wants pity. What we all want, be it consciously or not, is love and attention. It can be from our closest friends, family, or even from the people we come across every day.

A simple smile, someone holding the door. We want to be acknowledged. We want authenticity.

“Actions speak louder than words, and a smile says, ‘I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.”— Dale Carnegie

Don’t Give up Too Soon

There was a couple, Ana and Toni, who met each other in the street and had been together for two years. They were both constantly trying hard to find a job or some way to get out of there. I remember Ana telling us one night,

“There was this guy, he was all right. Yet all it took is one winter. One f*cking cold winter where he started drinking. And he never stopped. Nobody is protected from turning crazy when you live such a crappy life.”

That day, we could see in her eyes that she was exhausted, wound up. Who wouldn’t be in such a situation? Yet on the following week, there she was, laughing and asking me about that guy I met.

Three months from then, Ana was selected for a training to work in a grocery store. A few months later, she and Toni were not sleeping in that street anymore.

We all have difficult moments in our lives. Some last longer than others. The thing is not to give up too soon. For the sky can’t be cloudy forever.

“After the rain, the sun will reappear. There is life. After the pain, the joy will still be here.”—Walt Disney

Final Thoughts

I don’t mean to claim in any way that I understand what homeless people are going through. However, spending time with them did teach me a few life lessons that couldn’t be summed up in one single article.

It was surprising to get to know strong, thoughtful, perseverant people who were only asking to be treated as humans. And as such, like any one of us, all they wanted was an ounce of genuine attention, without pity.

I would like to insist on the fact that there was evidently more at stake than just attention, and although I tried to describe these ideas in a positive light, this is obviously no fairytale. Besides, this article aims to adapt these situations to our daily lives, thus leaving out the deeper context homeless people live in—this will be for another article.

The biggest lesson here is to open up to the world around you, forgetting about differences and opening your heart. There will be disappointments, there will be hard times. But remember you have every right to feel down sometimes, as long as you don’t give up to soon.

And, please, don’t stop being kind. Let’s be nice to each other. In these pandemic times, we need that more than ever.

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