Yesterday I had one of the most profoundly amazing experiences of my life.
To start with a little back story, my dad, a retired Chrysler line worker, has a passion for helping the homeless. He volunteers religiously every Monday, and helps out as many other days as he can. He even bought a second car with seating for 5 so that he could drive them to and from events. He is so dedicated to helping the less fortunate that he even brings some of his friends home to stay during nasty weather.
My parents home isn't lavish, but they have a new, fairly nice 5 bedroom, 3 bath home in a beach community.
"Bobby" is one of his friends, and yesterday Bobby needed a ride into town. My dad is famous for dropping everything if one of his "guys" (which includes women as well as men) needs a ride somewhere.
I had already planned to go shopping, so I offered to give Bobby the ride to town.
And thus began my adventure.
To give you a mental image of Bobby, imagine a scruffy middle-aged Dirty Harry with long blonde hair and no front teeth.
I had met Bobby a few times when my dad brought him to our place to help with yard work. I was always equally impressed with his work ethic and his reticent insistence on interacting with us as little as possible.
This quiet avoidance makes him absolutely FASCINATING to my daughter Sterling. She loves to follow him around the yard, parroting "Hey Bob" over and over again. He always just smiles shyly, and goes back to working on the yard.
So this drive into town was my first time to really interact with him. At first the discussion was tentative. Bob would talk in short bursts and I kept the discussion flowing by asking him about his life.
I was totally blown away by how well-read he was and learned quite a few things during the trip. We were nearing our destination when Bob turned to me and stammered out "I'm not trying to get fresh or funny with you, but would you like to get lunch with me?"
I had planned to drop him off at the shelter so he could meet up with friends for a free lunch, and his offer took me totally by surprise.
My biggest concern was that they would judge me. I had dressed to go out shopping and was wearing Tory Burch sandals, my 3 carat diamond solitaire, 1 carat diamonds in each ear, my Cartier watch and was driving a new Lexus SUV. I felt as ostentatious as hell and was afraid they would judge me for eating a free meal when I was so blinged out.
Bob wanted to do a quick Kmart trip before we got to the shelter, so while he was in the store, I hurriedly texted my mom "Bob asked me to come eat lunch w him. Is that cool to do? I don't need a free meal and I am all blinged out."
I was so afraid someone would be offended by me taking advantage. She assured me it was OK and so I went.
We were about an hour early for lunch, which gave us a while to socialize. I was amazed at how welcoming the group was, how open and even eager each person was to share their story, and how well informed on current events they all were. It was amazing to be welcomed into this unique subculture of our society.
I learned how one of the biggest elements of life for the homeless is fear. Fear of turf battles and theft amongst the homeless themselves. Fear of violence from a culture that neither values nor empathizes with them. And the fear of living amongst the mentally ill and addicts that make up the vast majority of the homeless population.
They were open about just how terrifying of an existence this was and I couldn't help but be touched at what a precarious existence they live.
Each of them had their own unique perspective on what it meant to be homeless, whether it was acceptable or not to "look homeless", and strategies for how they maintained possession of the few material items that made a significant difference in their daily comfort. Frivolous things like a blanket, dry socks, and shoes that fit well enough to not rub blisters.
They all agreed that keeping enough money for coffee was key. It gave them somewhere climate controlled to rest, and access to running water. Such simple things that I took for granted were a critical element in their daily existence.
When it was time for the meal to start, one of the nuns asked for a volunteer to do the grace. A large, messy woman leaped forward with her hand waving. It was clear that she had been excitedly awaiting this moment.
She squared her shoulders, opened her mouth and the first notes of Amazing Grace flowed out. As the song unfurled, her crystal clear voice flowed around us like velvet. Everyone paused and listened. The old men sat a little straighter. The young men paused in muttering to themselves and cocked their heads. I saw tears glistening in quite a few eyes. Goose flesh rippled across my arms.
It was a profoundly beautiful moment, watching a woman stripped of nearly every material object bare her soul and pour her entire being into a song. And I realized that all of my bling meant nothing, I was most enriched by being able to experience this day.
One of the ladies told me that the woman singing used to be an opera singer, but a prescription drug addiction she developed after back surgery had brought her to homelessness. It made me realize that we are neither better than nor terribly different from the homeless.
Each of us, each and every one of us could find ourselves in that position. Each person that I spoke to said the same phrase, almost like a mantra: I never thought I would end up like this. I never thought it could happen to me.
So the next time you see someone down on their luck, don't judge. You don't know their situation, you have no clue where they have come from.
They are human just like you and deserve your compassion. Just like anyone else.