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by Keith Wasserman

Since 1989, I have been spending several days every few years living among homeless people in different cities in the United States. I go to live on the streets to expand my perspective and understanding of homelessness and homeless people. Here are some of the other reasons I go:

> I want to have my reservoir of compassion replenished! I can become insulated to the reality of the pain, uncertainty and fear that homeless people feel. I go to the streets have my compassion renewed.

> As a Christian, I believe that since Christ incarnated himself into “our world” in order to be a bridge for men and women to have a relationship with their Maker, we, too, then must incarnate ourselves into the world of those whom we care about in order to understand how they think and how they feel in order to really love and help them.

> To “feel with” in order that I might understand better and create structures and opportunities for others to serve.

> To “re-evaluate” how we are serving the homeless at Good Works, the ministry I direct for the homeless in Athens, Ohio, and to explore what we may need to change and how to go about doing that.

> To “feel” the receiving side.  This helps me to gain renewed perspective on the feelings of strangers.

IN LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY, I learned about FEAR. I learned that going into a shelter and spending the night with strangers day after day in FEAR wears down the body’s natural defenses and makes one vulnerable to sickness and mental breakdown. I learned that it is FEAR that often makes a person compromise their own moral and ethical standards to survive. I stayed with 150 men plus women and children for 3 days on the floor of the gym in a Salvation Army. I slept next to a man with a knife. The only reason I knew he had a knife is because I watched him threaten to stab another man earlier in the day. Fear changes one’s personality and life choices. Prolonged fear turns you into someone you don’t like and don’t want to be with. Could it be fear that prompts the homeless to lie in order to survive?

IN CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA, I learned that the system of sheltering the homeless caters to the chronic and not the crisis. I felt treated like an alcoholic and a drug addict. I didn’t have proper identification and when I went to the Police to obtain the I.D. the shelter wanted, the police wouldn’t give me anything. I returned to the shelter and the staff implied that I was lying.  I felt caught in the middle. I felt misunderstood. It was in Charleston that I befriended an unemployed pimp. I learned how to listen to the voices from the streets; the voices of men and women who are survivors in a world in which they see little opportunity.

IN INDIANAPOLIS,INDIANA, I learned that time is the enemy of the homeless. It seems as if there is nothing to do and nowhere to go: so much idle time in which to get depressed, so little hope. Yes, you can work your tail off for 8 hours at minimum wage but you spend each day?s earned income to meet the needs of each day. I learned that it is very difficult to save money when you live on the streets. When you do earn money, you become a target for others to steal from, exploit, or beg you to give to them. People are in a rut and need someone to pull them out. It is this sense of hopelessness that often tempts people to medicate themselves with drugs to relieve the pain.

IN AKRON, OHIO, I learned about the need for privacy and loss of identity. Privacy is a commodity purchased by those who have money. The more money one has the more privacy one can purchase, the less money the less privacy. We need privacy to maintain our mental health. I remember feeling as if there were no place to go where I could be alone, to be myself. I was always around others who could potentially take advantage of me. This low-level stress combines with physical sickness to make a person behave strangely. No wonder some of the homeless appear mentally ill. I also learned about the loss of identity. When we lose a sense of who we are, we lose an understanding of the image of God in us and our purpose in this world. The loss of family and work confuses our identity. We become vulnerable to the seduction of a new identity – the identity of a bum, unattached from the network of accountability which fosters real human growth. Having a family (or “a people”) gives us a sense of identity. Having work gives us (especially men) a sense of identity. Being loved gives us a sense of identity. I saw the loss of love, and with it, the loss of identity.

IN JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA, I learned that while there are many good and caring people on the front lines of helping the homeless, the problem of homelessness doesn’t seem to be getting much better. I stayed in a city with an estimated 3000 homeless people. I went to shelter after shelter looking for a bed. By God’s grace I found a place to sleep. Homelessness
continues to be the result of a collision course between personal choices and “systems” beyond one?s control. Homeless people are caught in a nightmare of social oppression combined with the learned coping habits of survival.

As I enter my 24th year serving the rural poor and homeless with Good Works, I am more aware than ever before how these experiences have helped me to understand more fully that homeless people are real human beings, people who in many ways are not much different from myself. I learned that in order to understand and help people who are suffering, one must “climb down” from the comfort of one?s own security and reach out at some personal risk and pain. As a Christian, I now more fully understand what Christ Jesus has done for me. I am grateful and I want to continue to turn my gratitude into a godly activism.

For more information on the stories described briefly above, go to the Good Works web page – www.good-works.net – and click on Keith’s homeless stories. To invite Keith to be a speaker, contact him at keith@good-works.net or at 740.594.9000.

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