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.
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.
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.