The kids started it.
“Why is that person standing there holding a sign?
“What does their sign say? “Anything helps.”
“Can we give them something?”
“Sharon at school says she gives them her spare change. Can we give them some change?”
We talked about homelessness. Why people might not have a home. Where they sleep. Why it isn’t as simple as going out to get a job and saving their money.
We talked about why just giving money isn’t the best idea. That what they really need are people to help them find a new way, support to take the steps on a new path. And that I don’t want someone to take our money to then go and buy booze. Especially not with the kids’ spare change, lovingly collected over kid-time eons into piggy banks and giant plastic crayons.
So what does help?
Homelessness is a hard problem for the non-homeless who want to help. (Certainly not harder than it is for the folks who actually have no homes.) What does the well-meaning do-gooder do? How can I help?
I know that homelessness is a muti-faceted, many layered, complex issue. I also know that hope and knowing you’re not alone can be the first step to solving your own problems.
As I pondered this on and off, I read a review of Behind the Signs: A Journey through Homelessness by Kirk Toncray in The Register Guard. Kirk used to be homeless, one of the folks flying sign on Eugene/Springfield’s street corners. He said that one of the helpful things you can do for our homeless folks is to give them a clean pair of socks. I bought his book. And I bought a 10-pack of white crew socks.
The kids, wanting to be involved, wrote short notes. Duncan did mostly. In rainbow pencil. Some were great.
“We love you!”
“Believe in magic!”
“These socks are filled with love!”
And some…well…not all of them made the cut. There were some along the lines of: “When you get a job, make sure you save your money and don’t buy drugs with it and then your family will be really proud of you!”
I took the notes, rolled them into clean pairs of new white socks and put them in the car.
Can I do this?
It took me a long time to work up my courage to roll the window down the first time. What reaction would I get?
I’d heard stories of people offering food–protein bars and fruit–instead of money and being rejected and cursed at. I only wanted to help, to show compassion and caring.
Eventually I gave it a try. The kids weren’t in the car although I was probably on my way to get them from school.
I rolled down the passenger side window, grabbed a pair of socks from the bag and leaned across the seat as a hand reached into my car window. We made eye contact. “Could you use a clean pair of socks?” I asked. “It’s isn’t much, but…” I trailed off, unsure.
“Thank you.” “God bless you.” “Yes.” “That’s great.” The answers have all been similar.
“Take care of yourself,” I say, as they step away from the minivan. I want to say more. I want to let them know that they are cared for, that they are loved. That my bleeding heart and the two of the kids in the backseat feels for them, loves them. That I know I am no better, or worse, than they are. That there is hope. Even in a pair of socks.
In Behind the Signs Kirk writes that having a clean pair of socks can do wonders for your state of mind. I imagine that doing laundry regularly–if at all–is just about impossible if you don’t have a home. And I know it’s not much.
But they are socks given with love and filled with love. Mine and the kids’. With a love note that says we’re not alone.
It often takes me a while to get through my bag of socks and the chocolate chip Z bars I keep buying that the kids don’t want to eat. I suppose I don’t drive around that much and sometimes I’m not in the right lane or the light isn’t red or I’m too many cars back. So then I give a smile and acknowledgement of the humanity within us all. And some days it’s just too hard to make that brief connection and then drive away. Back to my giant house with enough bedrooms that each of the kids has their own.
I have no idea what it’s like to be on the receiving end of these little gifts from our white minivan covered in magnetic flowers. I hope it’s OK. And I hope I never do. I like to think that I’ll never be in that situation. That I wouldn’t allow myself to get to a place where I’m standing by the side of the road asking others for help. But somehow I don’t think that the very folks in that situation ever imagined themselves there either. I have no place to judge, and so I do my best not to.
Every time I roll the window down it’s still hard–because I want to do more, yet I know I can’t make it all better for anyone else but myself. And taking care of what I have going on, along with my precious family, takes up what I have to give.
So I’ll just keep on giving out our strange little gifts of love. Each with a note. And a smile. And a hope for a better tomorrow.