'Faceless, nameless other' was me, 35 years ago
I hope I never forget what it felt like when I had no home and only occasional shelter against a tornado season in the southern Plains. I hope I never the forget the pangs of hunger when I didn't know how I was going to eat. I hope I never forget how alone a person can feel, huddled in a roadside ditch, sleeping in a parking lot or in a cornfield. Most of all, I hope I never forget the way I was treated, whether well or poorly, because I was unknown drifter.
I don't want to forget, because looking at a street person or a road-worn drifter now, 35 years on, should be like looking in a mirror — not at some remote other, a faceless, nameless other.
No. I should see myself, and remember.
Of course, I was just a kid, an 18-year-old who could have gone home, but pride and curiosity had hold of me. I was not supposed to end up like this, without a roof, a job or a destination. However, I realized I was not stuck there, because I had a way out. I was not staying there; I was moving on, getting back on my feet.
And I did. That means I didn't experience the full extent of what it can mean to be homeless for years. I was neither an addict, nor suffering from mental illness, nor experiencing a disability. Even so, for the two months I lived like this, I did learn, as Dylan put it, how it feels to be on my own, with no direction home. Clear-eyed, wide awake, I felt it fully.
There wasn't much help for someone in my situation as long as I remained in small towns in Texas and Oklahoma. But most places, if you're down and out, you can get some help. If you're hungry, you can find food. If you're lonely, you can meet brothers of the road. Eventually I called my mom from Elk City, Okla., and she wired some money. Mostly that meant I could eat, but otherwise my situation didn't change.
The reality you can't help or change is other people. I was quite overwhelmed when strangers helped me. I remember (I think) the face of every person who did. There is a power in kindness and generosity we often underestimate. People who refuse to give, and those who cannot receive (often the same people), miss the freedom and joy of connecting with another person on the grounds of basic needs. It requires, I suppose, a tacit recognition that all of us have the same human needs and most of us are worse off than others are, and at the same time, we are better off than others still. We're in this together.
When you live for any amount of time on the street or the road, you will feel broken off from society. Many times I had the feeling — a terrible, alienating sense — of being invisible. When you realize that some people look right past you, that you don't register in their field of vision, it empties you. You feel someone has taken an existential eraser to you. That feeling, above all the others, is the one I must not forget. It is the common experience of the marginalized, the misfit, the disapproved-of and the disregarded. From the despairing adolescent, to the refugee, the person of color and the senior citizen, if you have felt it only once in your life, you must never forget it if you have any concern for the many who feel it every day.
As we enter once again into the season of the cold and wet, we often think of the homeless in our midst, for whom the weather is an ordeal. To address this, we can support inclement weather shelters like the one in Forest Grove at the United Church of Christ and Old Town Church, or The Closet Green Clothing Exchange, also in Old Town Forest Grove.
I would ask that we also consider the cold front that many folks, not only the homeless, face when they have become the invisible. What I really need to do is to see such persons, and let them know I see them — fully engage the people I meet, take a few minutes (or longer) to find out who they are and how they are doing. It is possible one might encounter a degree of mistrust. This is usually because of how vulnerable and unsafe one is when living on the street. They have met with hostility and possibly violence. Give them space and make friends. Hear their stories.
My time on the road ended on the day a professor and his family, on their way to the World's Fair, bought me lunch and dropped me off in Oklahoma City. They made feel like a long-lost nephew. They wanted to know all about me, my experiences and my plans for the future. Their warmth and generosity pulled me back into belonging and visibility.
I never want to forget what it felt like to stand on the outside, alone and in need, nor how the hospitality of people I did not know welcomed me back in. There are worse aspirations than to be one of those who reaches out to persons anywhere in our world and befriends someone who might be friendless, who feels invisible and unknown.
They may be hungry for more than food.
Steve Dehner is a Forest Grove resident, a writer and a library aide at the Cornelius Public Library.