Thursday, October 28, 2010

Homeless by choice

10/20/10 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Homeless by choice

Today’s lifestyles are sometimes foreign to me. As a product of growing up in the 1940s and 50s, my childhood was spent in an Ozzie and Harriet-style, safe and secure middle-class environment. My parents, grandparents, and neighbors, however, never forgot the Great Depression of the 1930s when the entire world was insecure.

The fear that swept the nation when the stock market collapsed and 25-percent of Americans was unemployed colored an entire generation's outlook on life. Grandmother remembered feeding hobos that rode the rails. Granddad described the horror of the Dust Bowl driving people from their homes. And old newspapers showed chilling photos of homeless men standing in bread lines and soup kitchens.

Those black and white images still speak to me in vivid color. Perhaps that’s why the plight of today’s homeless population tugs at my heart. I assume, by the measuring stick of my life, that the suffering of the homeless is involuntary. And while I think that’s generally true I learned last week that my measuring stick is sometimes wrong.

I was driving in Eugene when I saw two youngsters walking along a busy highway with packs on their back. They were very young and from a distance looked to be about 16-years old. One had a large tawny-colored dog on a leash. The other was carrying a tiny orange kitten. I don’t know who I felt most sorry for — boy or beast.

I ran a few errands and then headed to Trader Joe’s. Sitting to the side of the store’s entrance were the same two grubby young men and their animals. One of them pulled out a sign: “Will work for food.” Immediately, people stopped and engaged them in conversation. One lady dropped a shopping bag with a box of cookies and some trail mix. Others were mostly interested in the dog and kitten.

Now, I know the drill about dealing with the homeless. I remember the advice that L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez gave at a convention I attended last year. He essentially said, “Don’t get involved; no money, no help, nothing. Refer them to an agency equipped to deal with their problems.” This advice was from a man who befriended Nathaniel Ayers, a gifted schizophrenic musical genius, who was also a grubby bum. A friendship developed in which Ayers got much needed help and Lopez (who wrote “The Soloist”) received insight.

Obviously there are exceptions to the ‘no-interaction with the homeless’ rules and I have broken them a few times myself. So as I shopped, I thought about these boys. After all, they really weren’t men. They were boys. Did they need help? What was their story?

I asked the check-out clerk if he had seen them before. “No,” he said. “Do you want me to call security?” “Absolutely not,” I replied. And then, as he rang up a can of tuna, some dog bones and a small gift card, we engaged in a conversation about ways to help others without encouraging their lifestyle.

Outside, the boys were still squinting in the sunlight and waiting. Their dog was obviously exhausted and sleeping behind some bushes. He lifted his head when his name was mentioned and then fell back asleep. This was their second dog, the first one not being suited for the road. Whatever that means. The kitten was wearing a brand new collar and leash and playing with the shoelaces of their boots.

I was going to just drop off my small contribution but my curiosity got the best of me. With very little prodding, I learned that the boys/men were 22 years old and had been on the road for four years. Personally, I wasn’t at all sure about their ages but they certainly would never have admitted being underage.

Further questioning revealed that they were from Arkansas. Four years ago they decided they wanted to see the USA. Now, they have been to almost every state in the union with the exception of some of the northern states and Alaska. It’s too cold up there, one of them said as he shivered.

They had only been in Eugene a week and were staying down by the river. After they got rested up, they were heading home. One of the boys said that he just had to spend Christmas with his Mama. She worried about him and he wanted to reassure her that he was fine. They would hitch rides with long haul truckers whenever possible saying it was safer and they could quickly cover more distance.

I asked about their backpacks, wondering if they held all their worldly possessions. Well, they didn’t. Someone had stolen their sleeping bags upon arrival in town. The nights are already cold and they only had one blanket each. Now stowed in a tree, the guys hoped they would still be there when they returned to camp.

As we talked, I could see that they were weary and wary. They may not have been men but they were no longer innocent young boys. They had some roofing experience and were hoping for a temporary job to start bankrolling their trip home (or so they said). They were worried about the coming rain so I told them about the Eugene Mission where they could get a meal and a warm, safe bed.

We used to call people like this “drifters” or homeless by choice. Their goals are a common dream for young men. They long to see a bigger world than the one they were raised in. Well, I hope that their dreams are fulfilled and their lives are richer for it. I especially hope that they are grateful for the resources and generosity of others that make this lifestyle possible. Past generations were not so fortunate.

Quite frankly, it broke my mother’s heart to walk away. Living the homeless lifestyle is always dangerous — even if it is the lifestyle of choice. I pray that these boys not only survive but also thrive; and that they go on to live fruitful and rewarding lives with loved ones and a roof over their heads.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. 
Read her weekly columns in the Cottage Grove Sentinel

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