Homelessness strips so much from a person: protection from the elements. The safety of a door that locks. The certainty of a place to which to return each day. A place to put your stuff. The privacy of a bathroom. Access to a kitchen for a glass of water.
Homelessness not only strips away much that is physical, but it also eviscerates self-worth. People without homes walk among those of us with so much more, and they feel worthless.
Yet the return to "housed" can restore health, safety and dignity.
Let me tell you about "Lewis," an African-American man who worked once as a janitor, and later as a construction worker. Now struggling with a host of physical and mental illnesses, Lewis slept in a Metro station in affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, for an appalling seventeen years. Let me tell you about his transformation, which I was privileged to witness.
This past winter, seated at my desk just outside the client Drop-In Lobby at Bethesda Cares, I overheard Lewis murmuring to my boss, Sue Kirk. (This was a few weeks after he had been released from an earlier hospital visit one freezing day, wearing nothing but paper booties. )
"My feet hurt," he said, pain visible in his face. "I can't walk. I think I need to go to the hospital."
Glancing down at his swollen feet, barely covered by his sneakers, Sue nodded. She called 911 and an ER team showed up within a few minutes. They spoke kindly to him and he started to cry.
I tried not to watch the techs strap Lewis onto stretcher, sort of hoping that my averting my eyes would provide him a modicum of privacy in the crowded room. I did look up as they wheeled him, feet first, past my desk. He was staring at the hallway ceiling, tears on his cheeks, clutching a dark green garbage bag to his chest. I wondered if the techs knew that his bag probably contained every single item he owned. I cried, too, as the ambulance drove off.
As the weather warmed, I saw Lewis in our Lobby quite frequently. Office rumor had it that he was "in the pipeline" for housing. (When I say "house," I mean a room, just a space of his own. A bed in a room with a door that locks.) One day, standing in Sue's office, I looked out her window and saw Lewis crossing the street, heading toward our Lobby. He had something slung over his shoulder. As he drew closer, I could see that it was a suit jacket, on a hanger. When I pointed him out to Sue, she smiled and said Lewis used to splurge on the occasional suit when he had had a steady income, and a home with a closet. He had gone to Bethesda Cares' Clothing Closet because he had a housing interview scheduled; he wanted a suit jacket and thank heavens someone had donated one that fit him.
I was glad when he came into the Lobby to change his clothes, to get ready, physically, for his housing interview. I knew that our desk volunteer would greet him and give him donated toiletries so he could spruce up. I knew that our staff would be right by his side for any mentally or emotionally challenging steps in the interview. And Lewis knew all that, too.
What I saw in his face that day was an unfamiliar expression. I saw hope.
Indeed, the interview went well, and Lewis secured a studio apartment. One of our staff members, Mark, loaded his own car with household items donated by supporters and drove Lewis to sign his lease. The rest of us staffers went about our regular work on pins and needles, fearing a glitch, waiting for the email confirming all had gone well.
The shout went up during lunchtime. "He's in!" someone said. "Mark sent pictures!"
I grabbed my phone and thumbed through the photos. They showed Lewis, wearing a clean white t-shirt, beaming as he held up his key for the camera. If his feet still hurt he sure wasn't thinking about it as he stood tall in that studio doorway. He hadn't even been housed for a single night, yet he was already unrecognizable as the man crying on a stretcher clutching a trash bag.
He's agreed to let me share this picture with you:
Housing is healthcare. Housing is hope. Housing is dignity.