Mike could sleep standing up.
It wasn’t a parlor trick he’d learned to impress people, it was a survival skill. He’d spent much of his late teens and early twenties homeless and figured out that if he could find a 24-hour laundromat and leaned up against the dryers while they ran, it solved two problems: 1) he could sleep in a warm, dry place, and 2) people would simply think he was waiting for his clothes to dry and not hassle him for loitering.
I thought about Mike for the first time in years as I nervously walked across the street hoping to talk with some of the members of a homeless camp that had been slowly growing for three days. I’d been watching mentions of the camp pick up throughout the weekend on a couple of social media sites and figured it was only a matter of time before the Keizer Police Department were asked to intervene.
It turned out officers had talked with members of the group a few hours before I summoned up the guts to approach them.
Like Mike, the man I met at the old Roth’s building, Wiz, has his own areas of expertise. He knows the warmth and security of sleeping next to a stranger on a frigid night, he knows that we could drown the predators of the world in the wells of kindness, and he knows that pride should be no barrier to starvation, which is a kind of pride all its own.
Wiz teared up three times as we talked, but never over his own circumstances. His eyes pooled in response to what he’d seen in others he’d met living on the streets.
A very wise man once told me that pride and shame will keep someone moving – even when they have nothing else to cling to.
Once I learned this, I started seeing it everywhere, in those with presidential aspirations to the men and women living on our streets. Pride and shame are the engines that drive us to wake up and face another day, and the only differences are the circumstances we have to stare down in any given 24-hour period.
The same man also told me that’s its our responsibility to heal the pride and shame of others when it is bruised or damaged – a lesson I try to hold close whenever I meet someone new.
Keizer police are responding to a increased number of homeless communities springing up around the city, which means that the Roth’s camp was likely just the tip of an iceberg. That’s worrying for two reasons. First, it means that there is a larger, unseen homeless population just beneath the surface. Second, and more troubling, it might lead some to think that the “problem” has been solved because the most visible camp has dispersed.
The sight of a homeless community in Keizer may be a shock to our values, but that in itself might not be such a bad thing. It’s what we choose to do about it that defines what we become.