I saw her this morning. Slowly walking through an empty parking lot, pushing a shopping cart filled with a wide-ranging combination of items that had seemingly little or no worth. Yelling at everyone – at someone – at no one. Her monologue was wholehearted, pleading, vulgar and absolute. All at the same time.
As I watched her in her daily journey, I thought again about how we see people experiencing homelessness. Truth be told, this is the kind of picture that comes to many minds when we think about those who are homeless. Crazy, drug-addicted, shiftless, lazy bums who would rather beg on street corners and pollute our parks than do an honest day’s work and make something positive of their lives.
What if I told you that the description you just read is a stereotype, a profiling of people who are as varied and different as you and me? What if I told you that while there are certainly those who fit this description, it does not represent large portions of the homeless community? What if I told you that many of those who are homeless are really not as different from the rest of us as we might assume?
Throughout my years working with those on the streets, I have found that they come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences and lifestyles. This has been confirmed the last 16 months as we have launched “Jobs for Life” (JfL), a jobs/life training program that we are conducting with those living at Bridges at Kraemer Place, one of Orange County’s homeless shelters. Bridges opened in May 2017 and currently houses 200 men and women looking to transition from the streets to a place of self-sufficiency. We have completed four cycles of JfL’s 8-week, 32-hour training curriculum, with our 5th class preparing to finish in mid-November. The four completed classes yielded 29 graduates (consistent with JfL’s national averages), and our current class will graduate as many as 16 students.
What fascinates me is the background information we learn about these who are homeless. Allow me to share some of our students’ lives with you:
- From our 45+ students, we have at least 18 who graduated from high school;
- 20 others finished high school and attended 4- or 2-year colleges, or a vocational training school, with at least 8 having achieved degrees. Schools attended include UCLA, CSUF, CSUN, UCI, Fullerton College and University of London. Of those 8, 5 continued in graduate studies for varying lengths of time;
- There have been 2 US Army veterans complete the course;
- We enrolled one person of English nationality, two from Kenya, and one from Nepal;
- At least 1/3 have children; 9 are currently married, and at least 18 more have been married;
- 75%+ are from Orange County;
- Although predominantly Caucasian, we are also Hispanic, African American, Pacific Islander, African and Asian;
- Of the 29 who have already graduated, 13 had or have found employment; 7 are actively applying/interviewing for work; 4 chose to remain on SSI/SSDI; were medically unable to work or were of retirement age, 3 returned to the streets, and 2 returned to school; in our current class, 2 have already found employment;
- Some struggle with addictions (although fewer than you might think); some have made poor life choices (which one of us hasn’t?); some have been victims of catastrophes not of their own making.
Each and every one of them has hopes and dreams, fears and obstacles, pain and wounds. Just like us. They want something more, something better for their lives. Just like us. And they need positive relationships to encourage them in their journeys. Just like us.
Several years ago at a church I attended in Long Beach, our congregation had “adopted” a homeless couple. One day, one of our female members came to me with a shocking revelation. “Mike,” she exclaimed, “I just spent time talking with Ginger [our adoptee], and I found out how much we had in common! We both have kids, we both worry for them and want the best for them, we both struggle to be good wives…we’re so much alike!” And so we are.
I know that for every Jobs for Life student, there is probably a “sky-screaming cart-pusher”. But we need to remember that no matter who we might see or encounter, we share far more in common than we might realize.
Will you commit to begin to see these- the least, the last and the lost (in the world’s eyes) – as people experiencing homelessness, and not just as homeless people. Because first and foremost, they are people. And when God sees these people, He sees them as just that. People that He loves. People that His Son spent much of His time with while visiting this place. People for whom He chose to die…because He loved them that much.
You see, “homeless people” really are people first. Everything else is secondary.
Just like us.
OC UNITED, Director of Workforce Development
Questions? Email Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org
GET INVOLVED as a Jobs for Life “Champion” (mentor) or give of your time in other ways to provide restorative relationship and empowerment for a person experiencing homelessness at www.ocunited.org/volunteer.
GIVE. Your generosity is changing lives. We cannot do it without you.