Most people are going to skip right past and not read this.
You won’t even give it a second glance.
Some will read for a little while and choose to stop and ignore what is written here.
Just like the people we choose not to see. They are in plain sight, yet you choose to make them invisible.
I know I did.
I would walk right past them. Deny them even a glance. Not wanting to even deal with them. I wanted my own safe little space in the world where I couldn’t be bothered.
Yet part of me always wanted to do more for them. Yet, I felt inadequate. I was shutting them out because I was afraid … afraid that I wasn’t enough … that I could not give enough. Or worse, what I gave them could be used for harm. What if I give them money and they go buy drugs? When you are desperate for release from the pain you will do anything. I don’t blame them. It’s a tough life.
I didn’t want to have to look at them because to look at them is to know pain.
This gets intense so I understand if you stop reading now. I really do. But you still should. There is a beacon of hope in the end and her name is Danielle.
I went out to Detroit to deliver backpacks to the homeless. A couple of weeks ago just after Thanksgiving my friend Kate and I went to stuff backpacks at a new friend of mines prosthetic factory off of Woodward. Even ran into a former student of mine who said she came out because of what I posted on Facebook. I was elated!
These bags were filled with all the things I would take for granted. Hats, gloves, scarves, hand warmers, socks to stave off the bite of harsh Michigan winters. Canned foods, with a can opener! (Most people would forget that tiny little detail). Some hygiene products like soap, toothpaste and a tooth brush, because for obvious reasons, those are hard to come by. The last gift seems a little bit weird, but it is very essential; a five dollar gift card to McDonalds.
I know. I hear you. McDonalds? You could do better than that. But I will get to why that is so important later on.
It’s now a couple of weeks later and I am driving around the streets of Detroit wearing the wrong shoes for what I am about to do. My friend Danielle is driving me around, taking me to places in Detroit that I have “never seen.” These are places that I have already been, like Corktown, Greektown, and along the River near the Cobo … but I have never seen them like this. I never saw them this way because I never had to think about them as places where I had to keep myself alive.
I have known Danielle a couple of years now. We met when I volunteered to run the Ferris wheel at the Theatre Bizarre, before it was shut down by the city that year and moved to the Fillmore. She runs the local chapter of Burners without Borders, a group of people that want to take the gifting spirit of Burning Man back into the communities in which they live.
After visiting a church that prepares food and clothing for the homeless, one of the first places Danielle takes me is behind an abandoned auto service station. Over a fence not 100 yards from the freeway are a bunch of tents. I probably passed these tents a hundred times on the both the freeway and the street and I never noticed them.
Danielle told me that a couple lived here that has been together for years. There is hope – even if you are homeless – you may be able to find love. She called out to them to let them know we were here. This was my first etiquette lesson. Danielle told me how she felt it was important to respect their space.
The man called out and said he would be out in just a minute. Danielle said she felt bad getting him out in the rain like this and also felt bad because she forgot the cat food. When the tent started to rustle the white cat appeared out from under an old shopping cart, big fluffy, and white – and a little wet and muddy from the rain. There are a legion of stray cats abandoned by the people who abandoned the city and the man and woman helped make life a little easier for this one.
When the man finally came out he gave me a big genuine smile that came straight from the eyes. He said his woman was out right now, but she would be back. Danielle gave him some food, clothing, and candy as a treat. She also gave him some ear buds for his head phones. He lit that big smile again. Danielle asked him if he needed anything else and he said more batteries. Just as we were about to leave, his woman came home. Danielle said that she had been a former hair dresser and put her own hair up dreads. I grabbed a special big cap for the woman that was knitted to be large and warm. Danielle said the cap was actually made by a man from her knitting group.
Both the man and woman appeared so grateful for the gifts. I felt so warm. It feels great to give, even if it is does not seem like much … it makes a huge difference in their lives.
When I got back to the car my shoes were soaked. I realized that if I was homeless and not getting into a warm car with heated seats, I would probably be at risk for catching pneumonia. I recognized how lucky I was because at the end of this trip I got to go back home. These people don’t have a home. At any time, someone could go rip up those tents and that couple would have nothing again.
Danielle just has this huge heart and this warm open presence about her. She has this way to make you feel instantly loved and that you were family before you even met. I called her “an expert” on helping the homeless, which she immediately rejected. She said that she didn’t know what she was doing and that they had taught her the way. I told her “no”. She is THE expert. I always wanted to do this and didn’t know what to do and that she was guiding the way. I was grateful for that. As she gave the gift of warmth to the people of the city, she was giving me the gift of confidence through competence.
Of all the people that we helped that day, one really stuck out to me. I will never forget what happened down by the river. I will never forget him.
Tall as me, standing underneath an overhang by the river, yet he was like a lost child. His gray hair and all of his clothes were soaked. He was shivering uncontrollably. He could barely force the words out while he was trembling. I felt a little wary and little helpless, but how could I not help this man? The man said that he had been drinking for over 35 years and he hadn’t had a drop over the past couple of days. The shakes were not just from the cold, they were from withdrawal. He was probably also suffering from vitamin deficiency that comes from living on the streets and chronic alcoholism.
Danielle came to the rescue like an angel of mercy. She was fearless. She went right up to that man that most people would shy away from and gave him a backpack full of nourishment and warmth and helped him put it on. She helped him don some dry gloves and filled them with hand warmers. It doesn’t seem like much, but when you are freezing in the rain, every little bit helps. Yet, what really helped this man out the most was the McDonalds gift card.
If you got a 5 buck gift card from someone for Christmas from McDonalds, you would probably wonder if they secretly hated you. To the homeless, this is a life saver. When they use the gift card, they become a paying customer and can get out of the elements for a little while. That little gift card can buy them a couple of warm cups of coffee that heat them up from the inside and a little time in a warm space to heat frozen fingers and toes.
The man thanked us and made his way to the closest McDonalds he could find. You see, that is the other good thing. They are everywhere. I never thought about McDonalds in this way before. I have been living off organic food for the past eight years and have barely stepped into McDonalds since. Usually just for a coffee if anything. I have looked at them as a horrible place serving the worst possible food for you and should be wiped off the planet because it is contributing to obesity. But I had a new appreciation for them that day. I now know that they are helping a whole group of people, who have fallen through the cracks, survive.
We helped out quite a few people that day: a woman who was raising money to take care of her elderly sister, a Vietnam veteran, and a man whose legs were so twisted he could barely walk. Little did they know, Danielle had something special planned for them that day. She gave them a purpose. She made them collaborators in an art project by giving them a little wind up camera.
Danielle asked them to take pictures from their perspective on life. The homeless see things around them that we don’t see. Steam billowing from a manhole is an annoyance to us, but is lifesaving warmth for them. And people believe pictures more than words. She wants to make a book telling their stories and bring more awareness about their plight out into the open. Danielle was not done giving with just warmth and food. Now she was going to give them a voice. The five bucks in the envelope that was addressed to her as payment for collaboration in her art project may have satisfied some immediate need for them, but the long term effects of having a voice would be much more satisfying. Visibility after years of invisibility. Now they can be involved in doing something that matters so that others in their plight suffer less in the future. Danielle just keeps giving.
I felt a lot warmer that day knowing that I could now give without fear. Danielle had shown me the way. I do not think I can give her a big enough hug to thank her for what she has done for me and for the city, but I sure tried!
I have a couple more backpacks in my car and now I know exactly what to do.
I can see them now.