One of us froze to death a few weeks ago. I don’t know his real name; some acquaintances in Kensington just called him ‘Handicap’ because he had only one leg and navigated via wheelchair. The coroner sent around a picture of his frozen face to see if anyone could identify him. Few details are known.
On these cold deep-freeze nights, I sit by the fire, think about ‘Handicap’, and wonder who is hanging out at the Hagert Street Hotel, the abandoned loading dock that attracts a handful of sleepy people seeking a slab of concrete to call bed for the night. A range of emotions rush through my head and heart: shame that anyone is out there freezing while I stay toasty and comfortable: gratitude for those who have made ending homelessness their raison d’être: sorrow for all of the failed relationships and fragmented families who have tried to hold on to disturbed loved ones, but lacking social supports and resources, have let them slip out into the night: anger that we as a society create this condition and can’t find the will to solve the problem. I feel part of a collective numbness, hearts chilled by winds of self interest and isolation that prevent us from feeling the grief of a brother’s death-by-freezing.
I don’t know what the answer is, but JJ says he does. JJ, a man who has been homeless, lived at the airport for extended periods of time (and no, not at the Marriott), and is currently feeling lucky to have found “a lady-friend” to shelter him for a time, has a challenging solution for all to consider. How to end homelessness? “Everyone who has space needs to take in one person,” he said. “That’s all. I did it myself three times when I had a place of my own. It has to be personal.”
That’s ALL? I know. Utopian. Unrealistic. How make room for a family with no place to go, the fastest growing category of people who are homeless? Or how house a serious addict or schizophrenic and stay sane yourself? But JJ’s point is really about personalism and empathy, about understanding that the plight of another is part of our own story, necessitating some response from each of us simply because we are all connected; we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Project H.O.M.E.’s motto says it all “None of us are home until all of us are home.”
JJ is onto something; we won’t all be home until the reality and risk of one of us freezing to death is personal, until such a tragedy burns through our own numbness, touches our hearts, and moves every one of us to action. And surely, we all can make space enough to do Something. One small, first step. A contribution. A phone call. Asking Someone’s name next time we walk by. Offering a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Or a bed. As JJ suggests and did himself, making the issue personal.
One of us froze to death a few weeks ago. But we could all be home.