by Debra R. Borys
Looking for a Reason by Debra R. Borys
Homelessness isn’t just a social issue. It’s a personal, ongoing, every day way of life for thousands of people of all ages, race, and circumstance. When I first started volunteering with The Night Ministry in Chicago, I had some vague notion in my head that I wanted to do something to help the homeless. What I found on the street, however, was personal relationships with men, women and children who touched my life more powerfully than I could touch theirs. People like Eric.
The reason is there in Eric's eyes. You can see it, too, if you look past the half moons like bruises against his jaundiced skin, past the watery sheen and dilated pupils of an addict. If you set aside prejudice and righteousness, suspend judgment, block out political arguments, you can see the same thing I do. A reason to care.
When I look into Eric's eyes I see him at five-years-old, eight maybe, ten, sitting in the front pew at church listening to his father preach. He would probably wear a white shirt, stiff collar slightly crooked, poking him in the ear. He is fidgety, as usual, drawing curlicues of blue ink snowballs in the margins of the bulletin with a pen from his mother's purse, the ballpoint rough against the textured hard cover of the hymn book.
I don't know how Eric grew from that boy into the young man he is today, ball cap low over his eyes, strands of dark hair escaping from the rubber band at the nape of his neck. His hands are shoved deep into his pockets because we have no gloves on the Night Ministry bus tonight. The snow has turned to dirty slush; the leather of his shoes have soaked it in, dust and salt and cinders mottle the toes, make white uneven marks along the heel.
I wonder what circumstances, what choices, led him to this corner of Chicago, selling his self respect for a short respite from reality. What little piece is missing, what part of his life went wrong that the ten year old boy drawing snowballs became a young adult shooting heroin? Unhealthy relationships? Child abuse? Problems at school? A reckless joyride that went out of control? Did his addiction start out slowly? Peer pressure. Pot. Drop some acid here, score some coke there. Pierce the vein and watch the poison pollute the blood flow. Oblivion.
I can tell you what I do know. His father is a minister and his mom teaches Sunday school. Last summer, his cousin got married. Someone in his family picked him up, got him a tux to wear, drove him to the wedding and reception, and brought him back ¬when the festivities finished. No mention of how they contacted him to tell him the wedding plans, or their apparent willingness to return the homeless Eric to the street corner to buy more dope.
He trusts women more than men and doesn't have a lot to say. His first visits to the bus were tentative: on and off again without making eye contact. Toothpaste, soap, a session with the nurse. Constantly watchful of the space around him. Now, if he stays long enough to sit down, he often drifts in and out, head nodding with fatigue and dope drowsiness.
One night he asked for clean socks. He'd just been in the hospital with hepatitis and had a cut on his foot that the nurse treated. We had no socks. The next day, I bought a package of thick, bright white stockings with gray toes and heels. The kind my sons like to wear. Since Eric didn't come to the bus the next time I worked, I gave the socks to the night minister for the Lakeview neighborhood and asked him to give them to Eric when he saw the boy.
A Saturday or two later, I was making coffee inside the bus when Eric came on board with another young man. He thanked me for the socks. His health was improving. He introduced me to the youth who'd come in with him. "This is my friend," he told the boy, leaning a little to tap my shoulder with his. "Yeah," I agreed, touching shoulders again. "Good friends."
Maybe the question I need to answer is not what went wrong, but what might go wrong. How long before the young boy's eyes in the young man's face grow cold? Will the day come when he will look at me with a glazed gaze: wild, cruel, daring someone for a reason to vent his anger and frustration at what he has become? He will sit on our stained blue couch and I will mix hot cocoa for him, or maybe pour coffee, extra cream and extra sugar. He will stuff packages of cookies in his pockets and ask if we have any clean socks, any hygiene kits, any sandwiches, any more coffee. Anything? The dark hair will be streaked with gray, the zipper on his coat will not quite close and he will carry a plastic shopping bag with the corner of a frayed airline blanket poking out from its tightly packed interior.
If this is Eric's future, will I find courage enough then to look past his rage to find the human being inside? Will there be one there? Which would be the worst case scenario: a cardboard box or a coffin?
A cardboard box, and then a coffin?
No, I think. The worst case scenario would be not looking for the human being. If I stop looking, if everyone stops looking, the human being dies while the body continues to breathe. And the little boy in the church pew, the face he makes as he tugs at his tight top shirt button, the wide-eyed dream of someday drawing comic books, or pitching for the Yankees, or winning the Indy 500, dies also.
It’s about us. People matter, and we all deserve love, dignity and respect. Debra spent time getting to know those she served; now she writes about them to help the rest of us understand that these are real people, not society rejects and discards undeserving of our care. These people live real lives on the streets, and while we may never know or understand all the complications that led to their existence there, we can never turn a blind eye to who they are as human beings either. Thanks again, Debra, for being a valued guest on Effectively Human today. Your story touches our hearts and makes us think.
I hope you will take the time to share your thoughts on this post in the comments. I hope you will pass this post along, so others might be touched by Debra’s story and see the homeless with new lenses. Thank you for visiting Effectively Human and joining in our effort to make the world a better place.
©2014 All Rights Reserved Photo credit: Debra R. Borys ©2014 All Rights Reserved