Thursday, September 14, 2017

Invisible People: Why It is Important to Hear the Stories of the Homeless

by Nomad

But For the Grace of God

Throughout my childhood, I grew up hearing from my mother this phrase: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

This was drummed into my head at the earliest age, not as some kind of arrogant boast of divine favoritism. It was instead a reminder never to take things for granted. No man, no woman or child should ever feel exempt from misfortune.

The vagary of life, sudden changes in circumstance, is the one things we all share. A business shuts down, an accident or illness, a poor choice, a hundred things beyond our control. (Add to that the temptations of drugs and alcohol and the instant relief of from boredom, stress or emotional pain.)

All of these things, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, are a part of our common humanity. Today, it might be that person who is begging on the street, living in their car or suffering from an addiction, but never ever think it could not be you or I in that situation tomorrow.
That was the greatest lesson my parents learned from the Great Depression.

Somehow, this idea has been classified as old-fashioned, hopelessly naive or part of a devious political agenda. I am not sure how that could have happened.

Even as more and more wealth is scooped up by fewer and fewer hands, many of us have been persuaded to feel only contempt and disgust for the poorest of the poor, the sick and the homeless. Once stripped of their humanity, these people become invisible to us.

Making the Invisible Visible

Singer and songwriter Neil Young once said:
All these people talking about morality should just take a walk downtown. They don't want to go downtown because instantly they see homeless people and they don't want to.
Mark Horvath has been on top- with a six-figure salary job at a television syndication distribution company- but he has also seen his world come crashing down- the loss of his job, his savings and his home.

Homelessness was something he understood. He also learned what it felt like to lose more than just a roof over your head. Being homeless and destitute means the loss of your self-confidence and your basic identity.

That experience led him to found an organization and website called "Invisible People." Its format is basic but effective: the homeless will simply tell their stories on video - Studs Terkel style-and he then plugs the results into social media.

The questions Horvath asks are simple:
Tell us how you came to be homeless. Tell us your story. What's it like to be homeless? What do you think your future will be like? If you had three wishes, what would they be?

Other than that, Horvath just allows people to speak. Most of the people he interviews are surprisingly forthright and honest. They clearly appreciate the fact that somebody cared enough to stop and ask.
Do they all tell the truth? Most of them seem authentic but who knows? I doubt all of them are. I am not sure it really matters.

Horvath explains:
I’ve seen amazingly good things happen when people who are homeless get the chance to tell their stories. You should see someone’s face when they realize another person actually wants to listen to them.
It should not be unusual for any of us to be seen, acknowledged, heard, or helped. But for people used to being invisible, it can be a big, big deal.

Sabrina Under the Bridge

Even though she might look older, Sabrina is only 23 years old. She lives under a bridge in Seattle. Here's her story.

I think the most surprising aspect of Horvath's interviews is exactly how articulate and self-aware the people are.

Mark, a Philosopher

In the next interview, Horvath interviews another Mark who became homeless after a personal tragedy- the death of his wife and child, This caused him to have an emotional breakdown and after months of recovery, he found himself on the streets, unemployed and homeless in Seattle.

Mark assesses his situation like this:
I still have faith in myself and in my own abilities, but I have lost faith in this system. It works for the majority of people and as long as it continues to do that, those people can just turn their heads and ignore those of us that it doesn't work for.

No matter how much society wants us to believe that we're worthless or ...that we're invisible or that we don't count. Nobody is better than anybody else. We're all just as valid in this situation as anyone.

Rob with the Smile

Horvath spoke to Rob who explains that he was fined for sleeping on the streets. He calls the whole idea of ticketing the homeless for "doing something that naturally we're all doing."

With a brave smile, Rob seems undaunted by his situation.
As long as I keep a positive mental attitude and keep my spirituality in tune to the aspect that I can eventually get away from this, I'll be fine.

Ditsy the Shepard

Next, we meet 19-year-old Ditsy, homeless in Salt Lake City, Utah. Considering his unstable childhood, his love for children is touching. As a volunteer caregiver of the lost boys, Ditsy is something of a modern day Peter Pan.

When you listen to this young man, it does make you wonder how somebody who has nothing can be so much more giving than people who have so much. 
How's that possible?

Lanette in her Car

Here's Lanette, a homeless vet whose car is her shelter. That's a huge change of fortune from the time she served as a hospital corpsman in two tours in Iraq. Following her discharge, she suffered from PTSD and self-medicated with the highly addictive drug, spice. This eventually led to conflicts with her family and the final result was losing her home and her children.

Her dream is to win the lottery. And what would she do with the windfall? The answer might surprise you. 
And what I would do with that money is, I would build a hotel. And I would have where you could come in, you could get a massage, aromatherapy, food, a meal and a place to stay. With that money, you could afford to do that, that's what I would love, that would be my dream.
Amazing. Even when she has lost everything, she is still trying to find a way to help others.

Joe on the Philly Street

Now, let me introduce you to Joe, an unemployed construction worker in Philly. It doesn't take long to see that Joe is having a bad day.
When asked what it was like to be homeless? Joe answers:
"Most days it's pretty bad. Some days it's a little better, but it's never good."

Here are more interviews.

So what was your takeaway from the interviews? Which story affected you the most?

The Lie We Tell Ourselves

After spending most of the day watching these interviews, I admit that I felt extremely grateful that I was brought up in a good home, instead of being shuffled from foster family to foster family, boarding home to boarding home before being dumped on the street at 18.
Luck of the draw, as they say.

I feel fortunate that all my bad choices, (and God knows, I've made plenty in my life) never led to personal disaster. In my younger days, I did my share of sampling of illicit drugs but never got hooked on anything, never had a drinking or a gambling problem. I thank God that I always had choices about where I would sleep at night and never had to depend on the kindnesses of strangers for my next meal. 

But it's not enough to feel fortunate, I guess. If that is the limit to your sympathy, you are only halfway there. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Sometimes it is more comforting to think that the homeless must have done something wrong, that they are themselves to blame for their situation. It cannot happen to me, we have to keep repeating. 
In order not to dwell too deeply on that, we must tell ourselves in a hundred different way the lie that we are immune from homelessness.
These interviews serve to remind us that it can happen to anybody.
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If you would like more information on the organization, Invisible People, here are some links.

Invisible People’s website:

As with any organization or any individual mentioned on this blog, I would not advise any donations unless you are personally satisfied with the group's legitimacy. The decision to make financial contributions is a personal one.