For years, I have wanted to venture out into the city streets and photograph those who are homeless. Having over the past year led a somewhat nomadic existence has made more visceral the heartbreak that there are so many people who find themselves with so very little. Plenty has been written on the subject of poverty and homelessness and I make no attempt to tackle it here or claim to have any answers. The reason I decided to respond to this petition whispered to me from a place with no fixed address was to stimulate an ever deepening wondering about life, about modern society, about generosity, about suffering, about privilege and responsibility, and ultimately about being human. I want to hold the wound of homelessness with grace and tenderness because it belongs to all of us no matter what our address.
I will say that I wrestled with every outing but my first one especially. I sat in the car for some time, holding my camera, feeling awkward and nervous and wondering what I was doing. Unless people know me well, they don't know that deep down I'm very shy and self-conscious. I've learned some skillfulness in extroversion but those skills have never altered my essential nature. So it took some courage on my part to approach people. It's one thing to say hi and bend down to place money into someone's hands but it's an entirely different thing to crouch down beside them and start a conversation. And besides, who am I to think that they even want to talk to me? It can be quite intrusive to ask questions and I'm not known for bantering about inconsequential things. I like to dig deep. So with my heart racing I made it a point to deliberately approach people as if I was walking into a sacred temple (is that not true after all?) I squatted down beside them, turned towards them to make eye contact, smiled and asked hey, howzit going?
Weather was usually the first item covered .. sometimes it was raining, sometimes it was sunny .. and boy oh boy weather is such a great way to break the ice. Someone answers, "I hope it don't rain too long" and in those few words a great deal more is said if you know how to listen .. if you're willing to venture into how it must be to live so on the edge, so vulnerable, so exposed, so far away from any real shelter from the elements.
While we may not remember, I believe our bones remember that there was once a time in our evolution when we would huddle together under forest canopies, or in caves and around fires, our shoulders against each other feeling each others warmth. That was home. Home was being close to others wherever we found ourselves to be. Home is not merely a physical structure around us, it is human warmth, human touch, human care. What a deprivation to have so many people in our cities and have homelessness not only mean both lack of basic shelter but also lack of the kinds of human connections that are essential to one's spirit.
Mother Theresa said, "We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty." And this kind of poverty is not, as Mother Theresa alludes to, confined to homelessness. We almost all come to know it at some point in our lives. Sometimes we don't know if we can go on, if we'll ever find enduring love and companionship, or if there's any real meaning, purpose or direction that will draw us into the current of yes it's all worthwhile. Sometimes it just plain hurts to be a human being when all the chips are down. It's hard to fight the tidal wave of feelings that calls to us when we begin to really get just how fragile the web of life is that holds it all together.
Every person we see sitting on the sidewalk with a baseball cap and a few coins inside so easily reminds us of our frailty, our eventual demise and that we're just as susceptible as the next person to falling through the cracks. And certainly our impermanence becomes starkly real even though we can delude ourselves for quite some time through sheer act of will and showering achievements or too through denial when success hasn't come to fruition just yet. Still one day, unless claimed by a sudden death, we all lose the ability to "be able" as we once were. We all become reliant on others at some point. That's fine for babies and children, and it's fine too for the disabled and the elderly .. as long as we don't fall into the latter category. It's ok for them but not for me .. at least not yet.
Each time we walk by a person sitting on the pavement against a wall or tree, without acknowledging in some caring way, I wonder what we're also overlooking within our own selves. Could it be shame, fear, sadness, grief, contempt, anger, confusion, whether directed at ourselves or society? In hearing people's stories, it becomes evident how little it takes really to cross that line where things unravel with such unsuspected velocity that all bearings are lost and the sidewalk becomes the only ground a person knows. That's a scary thing to look at .. that how what keeps us tethered is only really as strong as our relationships and financial situation and it seems to be quite often that one will at times buoy the other and so when both are compromised, things get shaky.
A beautiful thing happens though once you break the ice and get rid of any idea of us and them. The I and Thou relationship that philosopher Martin Buber referred to starts to take hold of you. Buber said, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” And so it is. There was one message that was said to me each time I stopped to speak to people. "Thanks for stopping and talking to me. It's so rare that a person will engage in a conversation with me as you have. You made me feel human. Thank you." We all know it doesn't take much to connect with another human being. Sometimes it was spoken with those very words and other times in gestures .. a most beautiful smile, a glow in the eyes, a hearty laugh. One man who struggled to speak instead took my hand in his and kissed it. It's a paradox that often those who are most unseen in this world are the most capable of seeing. Tears filled my eyes. For an exquisitely abundant moment, the loneliness that has become my faithful companion from living in a world that cares mostly about getting ahead moved aside so that holy electricity could fill the space between us.
More Buber, “Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. Secretly and bashfully he watches for a YES which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another."
If ever you're feeling down, I guarantee that these kinds of human gestures will give you a reason to keep going and also make you wonder how we get so preoccupied with stuff that won't matter in the end. It's these moments that truly matter. Not only that but we're too often sold the idea that we need to be at our polished best in order to be meaningfully influential or worthy of loving attention. That myth gets shattered pretty quickly by approaching someone as a true brother or sister, the I and Thou within the sacred temple. The truth is, we only need to care enough to stop for a moment and reluctantly have our hearts broken .. because surely our hearts will be broken and that person could easily be related to you or me .. that person could easily be a brother, a father, a son, a friend, a neighbour, sometimes a sister, mother or daughter and one day even, it could be me. I hope it will never be me, or you; I pray it won't but it could be. And if we really tell the truth, that person is always related to me and to you.
Here is the photo essay that has occupied much of my time of late which also includes generous street performers who do much to contribute beauty, vibrancy and hope to our streets. Please get comfortable, turn up the volume and say hello to these people. May your heart be broken, may it be touched. One of Us, lyrics by Joan Osborne, performed by Martyn Joseph.