The challenge of homelessness, more than to correct economic inequality, is to eradicate marginalization. From my conversations and experiences with people in shelters, I’ve realized that this challenge concerns human connections, not money; compassion, not welfare.
I learned a lot from Frankie. Frankie has black hair, a gray peppered mustache and wears a white T-shirt over his thin, aged frame. He greets me with a warm smile and a gentle handshake, “Good to see ya, Greg.” His voice is soft and unhurried, but confident, and tinged with the joy he shows in his eyes. His mouth curls up and his eyes close slightly — just enough to express genuine delight, especially now that he can share it with somebody.
He begins breathlessly to tell me about the paintings he’s been doing: “Yeah, I’ve been working at a studio now — it’s real nice; you should see it — and I’m painting again and drawing again. It’s beautiful, beautiful. I do landscapes and then I do abstract and I just keep alternating like that. I did this one with bits of purple glass and blue glass and a white center. It’s pretty cool.” He smiles proudly and continues, “And then I do these landscapes with these skies, I do beautiful skies, you know one that fades from dark purple to a light orange and one that starts out green and fades to red, and my assistant tells me, ‘Frankie, these are beautiful,’ which is funny since I’m color-blind, but I took a course on color theory in college, and the paint has the label on it, so I know what to do. And I’m moving in to an apartment next month, right next to my studio, and I’ll be able to work from seven in the morning to 10 at night.”
And in almost the same breath he starts telling me about his “make amends” list. “When I was drinking, I was picking up the bottle more than the paintbrush — I really wrecked some people’s lives. I was a tornado, and I’d come in like a whirlwind and destroy whoever got in my way.” But the man in front of me is no whirlwind. “Yeah, things are working out, people come up to me and ask me what happened, say I’m not the same person. I just tell ’em I got a program, and I got God, and it works, it really works, it does.” I’m enchanted by this man, so unassuming and gentle, and yet so candid and full of life! As I go he grabs my hand and smiles affectionately. “It was good talking to ya.”
I talk to Gregory, a Jamaican man with diabetes and a wheelchair. He rushes over, remembering I promised last week to see him. He starts talking about everything, and slowly but resolutely reads me lines from his favorite book. His voice is resounding, and he tells me how important it is that we (the general we) encourage one another, especially when nobody there will. I meet Kenny, and he tells that last night he had to stay at the overflow shelter: “That’ll keep you on your toes. People there aren’t like this place.” He tells me a little about his week, and asks how mine was. “You know, I’m really glad you guys come and see us. It’s really hard to talk to people here, really hard to share, especially the important things.” As I leave he thanks me for talking and says he’ll see me next week.
On my way out, I run into Bill. Bill’s a genius — albeit sometimes misguided — and he starts talking as if nothing changed since I saw him a week ago. Bill’s got wisdom, and he can (and will) talk about everything from love to politics to religion to history. I don’t know how much he says is true, but honestly I don’t really care, just as long as he keeps saying it. Before I leave he offers me a sweater he acquired. Apparently he isn’t allowed to sell or pawn it and has no need for it.
They’ve never asked me for anything except prayer. As best I can tell, they want to be heard and supported and encouraged. What they want and what they need is to engage society, to embrace their humanity. Is it because that is their only need? Far from it. They are entirely dependent on the shelter, which provides food, a warm bed and basic medical and dental care. But when they tell me about their needs and desires, they talk about relationships and hopes and passions, not financial strife. More than anything, they want to share who they are with people who care.
They aren’t marginalized because they are disadvantaged. They are marginalized because they are alone. But you can’t fix this kind of real marginalization with legislation. You can’t legislate compassion. Welfare programs, while clearly important, do not dispense compassion. Compassion isn’t allotting money to programs to provide sustenance and support; compassion is embracing the needy and seeing oneself in them. It’s important to discuss how institutionalized programs can help the disadvantaged, because they can. But it’s more important that society dispense humanity and compassion faster than welfare checks. Welfare addresses an economy of scarcity; humanity, compassion and hope can operate in an economy of abundance. And amazingly, I’m learning that from my friends at the shelter.
Greg Phelan is a junior in Morse College.