Bedless Children

Hagar’s House is a shelter maintained by Decatur Cooperative Ministry. They serve the homeless in Decatur, Ga. Since the economic downturn of 2008, the ministry has seen an increase of people in need. People who used to give to DCM are now coming to DCM for help, says Beth Vann, executive director.

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I don’t look like the sort of woman who has ever been homeless. I have a house in the burbs, two cars in the drive, a dog that thinks it’s a boy, green tomatoes on the vine, kids with college educations and paying jobs, and piles of books in every room, some of which I’ve written.

Everyday I wake up in the comfort of my own bed, in my own home, and brush my teeth in the privacy of my own bathroom is a day for which I’m grateful. That I live in a house quiet enough that I can write on a daily basis is reason enough for me to rejoice. Solitude and quiet are hard to come by when you’re homeless.

Growing up, ours was the place people came to when they were homeless. Mama was always taking in others. The first homeless person we took in was Grandpa Harve. A stroke had left him with a dead arm. He had to have help getting dressed, going to the bathroom, even lighting the cigarettes that he never did quit smoking.

In addition to Grandpa, Aunt Mary Sue moved in with baby Melissa. But after Uncle Joe showed up one night drunk, cussing, hollering and kicking Mama around, Mary Sue took the babe and moved out. Then back again. Then out again. Mary Sue ended up with another baby before she was able to finally move on altogether. Mama helped her do that.

There were several other nursing students, like Mama, who lived with us, too. I can recall their faces but not their names. They would stay a week, or a term or longer. There isn’t a lot of extra room in a 12-by-60 foot trailer, so these women would sleep with me and my sister would sleep with Mama. Grandpa Harve would have my brother’s bed and my brother would sleep on the couch.

Hagar House beds

In Salem, Oregon – the town where state legislators make fiscal decisions regarding the welfare of children and families – there are over 900 homeless kids. A high school girl named Whitney Ferrin and her friends started a foundation — IGiveAShirt — to help these kids. In Decatur, Georgia, a town of four-square miles of high-end real estate, there are over 150 homeless kids.

That doesn’t mean these kids don’t own homes. Assuming you’re 15 and not Justin Bieber or one of the Kardashians, you probably don’t own your own home. What that means is these kids are sleeping on somebody’s couch, or in a car, on the floor, or if they are lucky, in a shelter. It means that these children don’t have a bed to call their own.

I sometimes wonder if we should call it being bedless instead of being homeless? For a child, not knowing where you’ll be sleeping in the dark is a lot more frightening than not knowing where you’ll put your books and things.

The number of bedless children is on the rise. According to new figures from the Department of Housing and Urban Development the number of homeless families with at least one minor child has jumped from 131,000 to 170,000. In a nation as wealthy as ours that’s beyond pitiful, it’s shameful.

I have been homeless four times in my adult life. Those were moments of great distress over jobs lost, bills mounting and sick kids to attend, but I have never, ever been bedless. Thankfully, family or friends have always stepped in during those difficult times of transition to offer a comfy place to rest my anxious head.

If we knew homeless people, knew their stories, we wouldn’t leave it up to others to do something, we’d do something. We’d move the boxes of old photographs off the guest room bed and offer it to them. Or we’d fold that mountain of laundry on the hide-a-bed in the den and welcome them to bunk there. We’d offer them warm bread from the oven and tomatoes ripe from the vine. We’d tell them our stories of the tough times we’ve endured and how angels disguised as people extended to us the hand of grace.

There are as many reasons for homelessness as there are people who are homeless. Every single one of those 170,000 homeless people has a story about how they ended up that way. The reason we sleep comfortably at night is because we don’t know those people and we don’t know their stories.

Most of us don’t even know their names.

About Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Speaker. Journalism Instructor. Four kids. Three dogs. One grandson.

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  • Steve Taylor

    Karen,

    I think the issue of homelessness really is a question of space.

    He was always around, shuffling, shuffling through the gravel parking lot, dodging the noisy heaps which seemed to supply a constant dance of rust and motion outside of our ancient red brick building. Even in my second floor office I would learn of his presence, for inevitably one of the wonderful women who struggled with the great mounds of the recycled clothing coming to us each day, would soon make her way to my office. As she stood in my doorway, arms crossed, awaiting my attention, I would silently give thanks for her presence and efforts.

    “Thank you God. Thank you for this woman who spends her days digging through the vast piles, separating that which is little more than garbage from that which will go to clothe your children. Thank you for the gift.” And then always the thought, “But is giving our cast-off clothing really a sacrificial gift to the Christ who comes?” Always the questions. Always the struggle.

    She would never allow my thoughts to drift for long. The mounds demanded her time. Soon her voice would plow through the river of thoughts, urgently announcing, “Well, he’s at it again! Accosting people before they even get into the building with donations and dragging clothing out of our drop box! He’s strewing it all over the parking lot! It’s a mess out there!” Once again, I must go into the parking lot and spend time picking up clothes that are now soiled.” It was an invasion of space, an invasion of her day and her efforts. And now, an invasion of mine. I was amazed that such a small army could cause so much chaos.

    I exited the back door and found him standing over our garbage can, picking through it’s putrid contents, the refuse of a modern society – greasy bags from the local burger barn; half empty drink bottles; and a discarded Styrofoam box, the container of what had once been a fried fish dinner. He stood there peering into the shadowy depths, clutching a crushed box of half eaten fried chicken in his gnarled hands. I walked over and stood beside him, sharing a bit of his space. As I placed my hand gently on his shoulder, I could not help but notice the stench, the pungent fog of body order and soiled clothing which enveloped me, overwhelming my senses, seemingly sticking to my clothing like some grotesque bit of unwelcome residue.

    At my touch, he flinched, shuffling his feet quickly so that he might turn as to see this annoying intrusion. “Harry , my friend,” I quietly said, “Why don’t you come in and get something to eat?” His bearded face and haggard expression reflected alarm and fear. He mumbled some incoherent sentence as he backed away from the contact of flesh, from this violation of space. He didn’t trust me, had little reason to trust me. For I stood before him, one of the clean ones. One of the ones who would frequently yell at him. One of the ones who would often call the police when they found him in their garbage can. I stood before him, one of these ones, the good and the upright folks, the backbone of society, as they say. So, he backed away and he didn’t come in. He rarely came in, the abuse which he received was a barrier between us, as insurmountable as any wall made of brick and mortar. It seemed impenetrable. Nothing seemed capable of breaching these walls. Not the voice of gentleness – not the touch of compassion – nothing. I prayed for a trumpet but Jericho wouldn’t crumble.

    Of course, we saw Harry from time to time. He was never a stranger for long. I never understood exactly why he continued to make his way to this place, for truly, it was never a place of complete refuge. We seemed to lack the capacity to fully embrace the chaos, and he seemed to be unable to move beyond it. Perhaps he came because even in his broken and damaged mind, he still understood that at least here, there was space where he would not hear the angry voices of fear demanding that he leave. Perhaps he came because, in the long and short of it, at least here was space where there would be no violation, even if there could never be complete connection. Perhaps, in the strangest of ways, here, at least here, he found space for community, even community as broken as his battered body and his wounded mind.

    And then one day Harry did not come anymore. They found his cold body resting on the shabby and torn seat of an abandoned car. They found him in that space that he had claimed for the night. They found him in the manner which he lived most of his life, alone and forgotten. In a world where the number of affordable housing units are decreasing as the number of prisons increase; in a world where larger and ever more grandiose church facilities are erected even as main-line congregations abandon the inner city; in a world where security systems become ever more elaborate and locked doors and locked gates and steel fences seem ever more prevalent, even as people feel more disconnected and less secure; in a world where medical care becomes ever more the possession of the wealthy while the poor are relegated to understaffed, under-funded, and over-utilized clinics, if they have access to care at all; there just didn’t seem to be enough space for the broken and battered person of a 52 year old alcoholic. Yet, the addiction was not his alone, it was an addiction of the world itself, it was an addiction to space that had little room for the other.

    Not physical space out there, but heart space in here. Where is there space for the other? Where is there space for the Jesus who seems to so often come, not in robes of purple or in flowing white garb, but in hand-me-down clothes and wearing the faces of homelessness … mothers, fathers, children.

    Rest now Harry, and be at peace. Now you have space.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Steve:

      Thanks for sharing this heartbreaking story of Harry.

      We always seem to find enough space, both physical and heart, to accommodate the guy in the suit with the spit-shined shoes, don’t we?

  • http://koinepdx1.blogspot.com AF Roger

    My thanks to Steve for the snapshot he has so deftly displayed for us. There is so much I’d like to say on the subject of this post but, alas, (or sigh of relief out there!) there is not time for. Just this for now:

    On our streets and on the move or in limbo are generally three categories of people: 1) the have-nots, 2) the can-nots, and 3) the will-nots.

    1. Have-nots have simply run out of resources for a variety of reasons: job disappeared, car died and somebody got fired, somebody got sick, or somebody up an’ left, somebody done ‘em serious wrong and they lost all their money; often several of the above all at once.

    2. Can-nots are those who cannot get off the street or out of their situation because of addiction(s), mental health issues, criminal records, behaviors, physical health issues; and again, frequently several of the above. Include those increasingly youthful sex chattel in this group. W/o intervention and options, they are in bondage, literally, physically.

    3. Will-nots are those who have decided to play the system, either temporarily, long-term, or permanently. Whatever, the place that we may encounter them is at the time they have no interest in doing anything else. But…there may come a time when they decide to jump ship and no longer be a 3. Now what?

    All three of the above groups are still human beings and require different responses from us. Don’t ever treat a 1 or a 2 like a 3. And don’t treat a 3 like a 1 and get all discouraged because you got taken for a ride. And we’ll never know any of this about any of these groupies until we open a place in our lives and our hearts to know them and make some different numbers possible.

    There is a fourth group, of course: children. Children who got not choice and no voice about whom and what they ended up with. They are a 1 or a 2 or a 3 in training, many of them–unless the world around them sees them differently.

    We don’t create and save jobs and change national priorities or fight wars so that we none-of-the-abovers can have more stuff but so that children can have more than three numbers in their future.

    There are short-term responses and long-term ones. We need both. We need to be about both. What else would life be for anyway?


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