homeless

You see them and try not to see them, but there they are: standing on the intersections of boulevards and roads, with dog, child or crutch in tow, and always with a sign. You may think that they are lazy, or unwilling, or you may feel sorry for them, or you may dig into your reliable trove of excuses and explanations and then the light turns green. Few who have not actually stood on corners asking for help and sending cardboard blessings know what it’s like. I have an inkling, and every time I see them, I cringe.

At a certain point in my life, for reasons still unclear to me, I ended up working 15-hour days, 6-times a week, for a full summer. Almost the entirety of each day was spent outside, in the city and suburbs of Baltimore, selling educational study-guides door-to-door. Baltimore summers are toasty, and sometime mid-summer I noticed that I had formed burn-scars on my knuckles from knocking on so many white-hot doors. But what I also noticed, from the very first day, was the inordinate toll that being outdoors, in a man-made environment, takes on a human body and on a human psyche.

Let’s start with the obvious: the elements. You are out there rain or shine, and sometimes you wish it was the rain because after being outside in 90+ degree weather in 100% humidity for a couple of hours, you start seeing things. You are lucky if you come across a McDonalds or a kind person who will offer you water. Mostly, though, you suffer. The wind messes up your hair, the drivers splatter you with puddle-grime, mosquitos sting you, as do bees, spiders, nettles and sometimes dogs. By three in the afternoon you are lobster-boil red, by five your blisters have popped. If it’s cold, you’re cold. If it’s hot, you’re hot. But whatever the weather, you are completely vulnerable, completely unsafe and mostly helpless against it.

Before all of your senses are dulled as a survival mechanism, the smells are as abrasive as the sensations of freezing and heat. You are bombarded with olfactory information that you do not need: gasoline and fumes, garbage odors, toxic whiffs of $5.99 perfume. The tantalizing aromas of fresh, sugary donuts and coffee wafting out of Starbucks wannabes are no better. You are hungry and have no place to sit down and eat your food. And when you have eaten, you have no place to relieve yourself.

The sights, too, are overwhelming. Hundreds of eyes bore into you: questioning, suspicious, misunderstanding, empathetic, apologetic, frustrated, disgusted. Before they know what you’re about, they have already passed a judgement. We all do this, don’t we? Standing precariously close to oncoming traffic, those in need must see a thousand averted glances, a thousand cars, busses, cyclists, trucks, vans – within a span of a few hours. They see everything, and, what’s worse, everyone sees them. There is no place to hide. No place to be alone, to be safe.

You’d think the visual overload would be the worst, but for me, walking up and down the streets of those subdivisions that are now permanently charred into my cerebral cortex, the worst was the noise. The cars screech, the gusts of wind howl menacingly, there is a general hummmmm to the city that insidiously bores into your sub-consciousness and slowly replaces everything else. By 7pm, there are no more songs running through your head, no thoughts, no worries; nothing at all. And this is just the first day.

For years afterwards I had nightmares that I was lost in those streets, alone and helpless and drowning in the intensity of it all. I cannot imagine what such a life does to someone who is forced to live it for months or years. Unable as I am to solve the problems of poverty, when I see folks out on the street, my heart goes out to them because I know that they must be hurting.

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