In the Blink of An Eye

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As I write this post the cold has returned to Houston again. In fact it blew in with a vengeance during the afternoon. I had spent the morning tidying up the yard in my shirtsleeves, but by one o’clock strong winds and a cold rain had overtaken the area. Such is the nature of winter in my part of the country. There are no guarantees that a given day will maintain the same kind of temperatures over a twenty four hour period in my neck of the woods. In fact we have to be ready for pretty much anything until at least mid March. Just when that little groundhog up north predicts an early spring and we get excited about outdoor baseball games and track meets old man winter shows up again and we have to skitter around the house looking for the jackets that we finally hid away.

I actually like the cold so I’m not really complaining, but my knees tend to prefer a nice non humid day that lingers in the seventies. My hair agrees as well, so about the time that I was grumbling because my trip to a doctor’s appointment was marred by a chilly rain I saw a sight that both humbled and saddened me.

Underneath the cover of a bus stop shelter sat an elderly woman all hunched over as though she was grabbing a quick nap. She was wrapped in a big coat and wore a scarf on her head that only allowed a bit of her stone gray hair to peek through. Her feet were shod in flimsy slippers and she wore white socks that drew attention to her noticeably swollen feet and ankles. I might have thought that she was simply resting while on her way to or from a visit to her own doctor but for the telltale clues that told me that her story was far more complicated. On one side she had a pile of blankets and assorted sleeping supplies. On the other was a large bag neatly filled with clothing, food and other items. It was apparent that this unfortunate soul should was either a runaway or homeless.

Our vehicle was pushed forward by the moving traffic all too quickly. We were in the wrong lane to stop to ask if the lady needed some help. She became a passing vision that buried itself in my mind. I could not help but wonder what her brought her to such a tragic state. I worried about her safety and worried about what she might do when the even colder nighttime arrived. Mostly I tried to understand how her life had spiraled so out of control that she ended up alone on the streets.

There are populations of the homeless virtually everywhere. Many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol. It is estimated that at least thirty percent of them suffer from mental illness. There are old and young, singles and families who for one reason or another find themselves with no place to go even on a day when the rest of us are scurrying to our offices and homes to keep warm. These people are someone’s sons and daughters, maybe even mothers and fathers. They did not always live this way but something in their lives went terribly wrong.

When I see someone like this old woman my stomach churns and my heart weeps. I find myself thinking about them and worrying about them. I want to know their stories and what tragedy led them to such an horrific fate. I wonder if there are family members somewhere grieving their loss or if they are all alone in the world with nobody to love them or care about them.

I have known truly good people who work with the homeless. They tell me of the joys and the frustrations associated with their jobs. There are places dedicated to providing  shelter and food, but so often the diseases of the mind that stalk the homeless drive them away from any kind of restrictions including walls. They run from structure and prefer the freedom of the streets, at least until the weather turns foul. Then the temporary housing fills to the brim and sometimes there is literally no room at such inns.

Admittedly homeless folk frighten most of us. They are dirty and often bear faraway looks on their faces. We don’t know if they are kind hearted or filled with criminal intent. We worry that if we give them money they will use it for drugs or alcohol rather than food or a place to stay. Surely they need more than stacks of blankets which they all appear to have in abundance. We just don’t know what to do.

Underneath the freeways along the southern corridor of Interstate 45 tent cities have popped up here and there. They are like little communities of urban campers. They huddle closely together and probably provide a small measure of safety to the occupants. I don’t know how they found the means to purchase their makeshift homes or why they are not stolen during the day when the occupants appear to be out and about. I’ve heard that there is a kind of code of ethics that homeless groups follow and that sometimes they even develop their own secret language. They mostly take care of one another and respect the meager possessions of their fellow street folk, at least until some disagreement ensues.

I still worry about them and wonder if being a vagabond is a choice for them or simply a circumstance. I think about that old woman who somehow doesn’t seem to fit into their world even though she appears to have the necessary instincts to survive. There is something remarkable about her even as I grieve for her. She should be in a nice warm home surrounded by children and grandchildren who love her. Has she been forgotten?

We constantly carry on about things that seem to be so unimportant compared to the fate of the homeless who live among us. We hardly pay decent salaries to the blessed individuals who choose to work to help them. Programs and doctors and counselors for those with addictions or mental illnesses are scarce. We barely skim the surface of doing our best to insure that little old ladies like the one I saw will be safe and secure. We look away, or drive past quickly only to forget them in the blink of an eye. Surely we can do better.

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