The holidays are on the horizon and during this season of gratitude and giving, chilly weather and warm our hearts, a call for “compassion” fills the air. Slightly idealistic in tone, the word conjures up images of bald-headed robe-wearing Ghandi look-a-likes. Readily huggable with open arms and open hearts. Pleasant enough, but for us boardshort-wearing everyday folks walking the streets of Santa Cruz “compassion” is not always the predominant response to our city’s homeless situation. Well that’s okay. It would not only be hypocritical to write any words of condemnation, but to be a monk you would need to go bald anyway. Frustration, fear, and anger are natural, even justified emotions; however, do we really need or want to submit to them.
Let’s not waste words reciting statistics to provide proof the pandemic that is homelessness in Santa Cruz, just go stroll along the San Lorenzo. Actually, reducing our house-less neighbors to numbers proliferates the problem. The problem of focus today is not the homeless. They are equal shareholders of a larger conundrum which we all play a roll. Fortunately, we hold equal share and reap equal reward in the solution.
A wise man named Siddhartha points to our predicament when stating that “holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned.” Regardless of whether the anger, resentment, disdain, and frustration we feel are justified they really just tense our muscles, wrinkle our skin, and mess with our digestion. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a part of life. However, it also acknowledges that we don’t need to self inflict it. So short of walking any “eight fold paths,” how do start trotting in the direction of inner peace and compassion.
One last word from the wise sage Sid may help. “Anything short of acceptance is avoidance” he said. Homelessness is a part of life and it burns. By accepting that we realize that anger doesn’t have to be. Complaints about or attempts to hide, ignore, or mute the problem just heat the ambers. Acceptance allows us to drop the coals so to fill an otherwise burned hand with a healing handshake. In doing so we realize that for as much as the housed may be negatively affected by homelessness, those without shelter aren’t likely loving the situation either.
Acceptance of the situation also allows us to transition from transactional to transformational responses to it. Despite our best intentions, “serving” the houseless by scooping powdered mash potatoes over a table to a nameless face is transactional. One’s “serving” another reinforces stereotypes and encourages social division. “True nobility is not found through our superiority to our fellow human,” claims Hemingway, “but in our superiority to our former self.”
Instead attempts to serve, save, or eradicate the homeless, what if we focused on transformational interaction where we served, shared, and learned from each another? Transactional outreach provides handouts to address superficial needs. Transformational engagement offers a dignified hand-up that satiates deeper hungers. It may be fault, choice, karma, or luck that lands someone on the street, but our communal and personal growth requires that we move beyond outward judgements and labels. That we recognize this call towards a “superiority over our former self” is communal and that each individual has something to contribute to the process. So lets expose the labels:
“They’re addicts.” Yes, many are. And I write this while satiating symptoms of a painful caffeine withdraw.
“They’re crazy.” Sure, in a society where babbling into a bluetooth headset is saner than bantering with the voices in one’s head.
“Its they’re fault.” There was likely a bad decision or two somewhere along the line that didn’t help the situation; however, surveys show 7 of 10 people are one missed paycheck (one “bad decision”) away from homelessness. Maybe some of our outward judgements should be inner gratitude at our not having personally hit the streets. Yet.
“They’re lazy.” A man reading a newspaper in the park on a Tuesday morning is a dignified “somebody” taking advantage of the day. The same man sitting in the same park, but wrapped in a newspaper, is a “lazy” nobody disrupting the day. Perception is interesting.
We all likely fall into one or more of the above categories regardless of the bed we will or will not be sleeping in tonight. Great, now we have a common foundation on which to build relationships.
“Wait, what? Building fences around the San Lorenzo we can do. Hell, even the Trump-inspired walls at our borders aren’t out of the question in this crazy political season. Relationships though?
“Relationship” doesn’t infer a backyard bbq invitation. Opening ourselves to relationship simply means accepting that we all have wisdom to share, room to grow, and a common hunger for a home. “Homelessness” is not mutually dependent on, nor synonymous with “house-lessness.” The cravings we share for community and dignity are indiscriminate of economic class, mental condition, or luck. Its through relationship and community, not buildings, that we experience “home.” There are plenty of housed-homeless and also plenty of homed-houseless in and beyond our city limits who stand to benefit from a little diverse and dignified dialogue and relationship.
So you’re not overflowing with compassion yet? Here is a rather extreme, but nevertheless thought provoking experiment to close. Imagine 3,000 hungry and homeless shivering dogs were dumped onto our city streets one cold and wet winter night. The city would be in uproar. Doors of houses would open, kibbles would fill bowls, and belly rubs would be a plenty before anyone had the chance to question whether Scruffy had a drug addiction.
I know what your thinking, and your right. We can’t compare puppies and panhandlers and by no means do I encourage rubbing the bellies of house-less friends on Pacific Avenue, ignoring the presence of drugs on our city streets, or ignore or discredit the serious nature of our homeless situation. I simply plant a seed of contemplation and ponder the possibilities of what would happen if the compassion we’d show our furry friends extended to our (sometimes equally furry) houseless neighbors. After all, holding a puppy is a lot more healing than holding a hot coal. Thus as the city continues careening the crazy path towards an end to houselessness, I hope we may all travel the road of self-transformation and homecoming this holiday season.