What I've Learned from the Homeless Women of Seattle
1. "Homelessness is a condition. It's not who we are, it's something that has happened to us." When the woman who was leading me down the hallway spoke these words to me, it caught me off-guard. It sounded like a victim mentality that didn't take responsibility for the fact that homelessness can also be the consequence of irresponsible choices. But as she shared her personal story and some of the stories of others, I began to see what she meant. Homelessness has happened to these women because they found themselves in the perfect storm of crappy circumstances that, whether self-imposed or not, left them in a place with nowhere to go.
This particular woman told me how she was well educated, confident, and in her 50s when her partner died. She fell into depression, lost her job, and eventually ran out of money and the ability to even care about what was happening to her. When she first began showing up to the shelter, she struggled with the rule that all women must be awake. She told me, "When you're depressed, all you want to do is sleep. But if I wanted to get off the streets and be here, I couldn't do that. I did nothing but sit quietly by myself for hours, but it was a huge victory for me and eventually I was able to start contributing and was asked to work the front desk."
Now she is a public speaker on behalf of Seattle's homeless women.
2. There's homeless people that you see and there's homeless people that you don't see. The homelessness that we often see is the scruffy, sad, sometimes-drunk, asking-for-money type of homelessness. We don't like it, we're uncomfortable with it, and to be honest? we don't want to give them our cash because it probably wont be spent on a good meal. But these women in this particular shelter are invisible to us. In Seattle, they are literally underground; taking showers, doing laundry, checking their mail, talking with friends, and feeling exasperated with their unruly kids (sound familiar to anyone else?)
I watched them sort through piles of donated clothes, holding shirts up to themselves with careful consideration of what they liked or what would fit well. The teenage girls did makeup for the older women and plucked the eyebrows of the younger girls. A volunteer nurse sat in a circle of women, answering questions. An elderly lady who was beside me sits every week with a tub of water and oils to wash the women's feet. It is an unknown community of unseen people who are doing their very best to stay off the streets, and a handful of others that have decided to go underground and meet their needs.
3. They don't desire for everything to be handed to them. The tour-guide woman surprised me again when we walked through the kitchen and she told me how easy it was to get a free meal around town. But then she mentioned how thankful she was that this shelter allowed the women to cook their own eggs for breakfast. "That's the first thing that goes when you're homeless," she said. "You can't get in the kitchen anymore." And she never mentioned loving to cook or wanting to do anything elaborate or creative, she was just talking about cooking an egg. It surprised me because I realized that for some of those women, being able to do something for themselves was satisfying. It was better than having it done for them.
4. Jesus would love and help these people. A lot of people, myself included, have wondered how much good it's doing to help people that "wont help themselves." Sadly, it's sometimes true that a homeless person has spiraled down a path of self-destruction and is content to barely get by on hand-outs. It's sometimes true that the people begging on the street don't even want the food we offer them instead of our money. That's not always the case, but it doesn't really matter.
It's good that meals and clothes and beds are available to these women and it's good to keep it that way. Whether it be donated clothes, volunteered time to read to the kids so that the moms can get a break, painting toenails, serving food, financial support for the shelters, or just showing up to make friends and break through whatever boundaries we imagined were built up between us... it's all good.
For a Christian, this is where it all comes together. It's all part of incarnating those Scriptures that we hold so dear.
Jesus died for us while we were still sinning against him, therefore we never wait to do good until someone has deserved it or earned it.
God saw that we were slaves to our own destruction and chose to pay the ransom for our freedom, therefore we reflect his character when we sacrifice for someone who is trapped in the consequences of their sin.
He loved us first and without fear, therefore we can cast off judgement and doubt and pour out love like he did.