I still remember the sight of the man: His shoes were made of paper, and his hair and face were matted with dirt. He was slumped against a wall, his legs splayed out onto the parking lot, his eyes two lifeless balls. Why is that man sitting there? I silently questioned, as I starred just a little bit too long.
I realized at that moment what it meant to be homeless. I was shocked that someone could survive one day in that condition, let alone years. I thought about my own house, a place of morning pancakes topped with melodic laughter, bubble baths followed by a favorite bedtime book, and I understood how very blessed I was. It was the first time I understood that some people didn't have a home, and that a whole group of people -- men, women, school children just like me, and even babies -- were called the homeless. To me, having a home was a basic necessity; it was what anchored us to this earth. To be without a home? It was the most frightening thing I could ever imagine.
Several decades since that first painful encounter, I am saddened to say that homelessness still plagues our society. In fact, in these desperate economic times, it has become an epidemic. On any given night in the United States, more than 670,000 people have to cope without having a roof over their heads - that's roughly 22 people out of every 10,000 Americans. In 2009, more than 170,000 families across the country resided in a shelter- a 30 percent increase from just two years before -- and more than 50,000 youths suffer through long-term homelessness.
So what is it like being homeless? It's something not many of us want to imagine. But I recently stumbled across a website, homelessamerican.com, that allowed me into this bleak world. The site's articulate and thoughtful articles are written by a man named Claude, who survived without reliable shelter for many, many months. Being homeless, he says, took just as much work for him then as keeping a roof over head does now, with hours spent figuring out where to go, which shelters were open and when, and where free meals might be served. He also found himself traipsing in threadbare shoes for miles, just so that he could survive one day of a sub-zero winter in a northern American state.
Claude describes his homeless life like this: After sleeping in a shelter to escape the biting winds and snowfall, he would have to be up and out by 7 a.m., when the shelter closed for the day. Once on the street, he knew of a church that opened its doors to "those in need" every morning at 7:30, and there he would idle over oatmeal, coffee and juice in a heated room for as long as he could. When the church closed after breakfast, he found himself out on the street again. A day shelter might be open but since so many people relied on it, it was difficult even to get in. His only other escape from the freezing temperatures was the public library, where other library goers stared and quickly moved their things to other tables. In the evening, clutching his torn coat against his body, Claude would brave the frost once more. "There was always dinner somewhere near downtown, usually at a church," he writes. "It could be a long walk through the cold, but it was another chance to get out of the weather for a while and have a good hot meal."
Reading Claude's missives brought tears to my eyes, as did this grim statistic: The death rate of homeless people is about four times that of the general population.
Of course, it's not just extreme weather that beats up on the homeless. It's often society at large that delivers the most hurtful blows. I've seen many people walk past those out on the street as if they were lepers. It's almost as if homeless people bring out a deep primal anxiety in us that urges us to turn away. Susan Usha Dermond, the author of Calm and Compassionate Children puts it this way: "I think we fear homeless people for so many reason. We fear we could be in their position had we not had the karma to born into our families. We fear that we might embarrass ourselves by not knowing how to interact with them. We fear that if we find out more about a homeless person, this knowledge will trouble us, and we'll have to do more for them."
Perhaps the saddest thing to consider is that there is a whole population of homeless people of whom we are not even aware. Beyond the men and women we might see on the streets, there are thousands and thousands of homeless who are trying to blend in and indeed become invisible. These are people without shelter who are "trying to not to look poor and do what they can toward gaining meaningful work and their own place to live," Claude writes on Homeless American. People who are trying to escape our scorn and accusing glare. People trying desperately to get back on their feet.
The other day my nine-year-old daughter and I were in New York when we passed a large gourmet deli where dozens of people were gaily enjoying their lunch. Just outside the restaurant's window sat a little old woman. Her name was Esther and she was homeless. What was remarkable was that the people inside gobbled down their meals as this woman in plain view was starving. Not a single person in that deli had offered her a bite of food.
My little girl and I went inside and quickly filled a bag with fresh groceries. When we handed them to her, she smiled and said thank you. But when we tried to give her money, she demurred and said she couldn't accept it. I insisted and slipped it in her purse. She had the sweetness of an angel and when we walked away, we vowed to ourselves that we would figure out what more we could do to help her.
We were dreaming of a happy ending with Esther. A few hours we went back to find her. I was prepared to get her bathed and put back together. But she was gone. We've returned to that same spot where we first saw Esther many times now. But we've never been able to find her again.
My big regret is that we were not prepared to help Esther when we could. But our meeting has taught me a profound lesson. I've since done some research on how we can lend a hand to the homeless we meet in our communities. And if you've ever had a distressing encounter with a homeless person you wish you could have supported, maybe these insights will help you, too. My belief -- and my daughter's, too -- is that if you change one life, you have changed the world. Here are some ways you can make that change.
1) Set aside one afternoon for a "Lend A Hand" gathering of families in your circle. Ask everyone to bring their gently worn hats, shoes, gloves and other to you house and then bring them down to a local homeless shelter. Your no-longer-needed items will make a priceless gift to others.
Please also keep this in mind: A Los Angeles social worker told me that those living on the street often have no access to free undergarments. If you can round up donations and buy underwear, socks and undershirts in bulk from your neighborhood warehouse store, please consider donating those, too.
2) For the same gathering, ask each family to donate a dozen of one of the following items: shampoo in small unbreakable bottles; soap and a washcloth; toothpaste and toothbrushes; combs; small stationary kits with notepaper, envelopes, pens and stamps; phone cards in small denominations. Many of these items you can round up at your local 99 Cents store. Create care packages in paper bags that you can decorate, and be sure to have each child write a small note of blessings to include in the package. As a group, donate them to your local shelter. Over milk and cookies later, discuss what your group's kind act could mean to the people at the shelter. Talk about the different reasons people might become homeless and how each of us can help.
3) Keep nonperishable food items, such as granola bars (be sure to replace them monthly) and bottles of water, to give to the homeless in your neighborhood. Five-dollar gift cards to Subway sandwich restaurants will provide a much needed healthy meal.
4) Research the homeless outreach programs in your area, print out information and compile as packets to keep in your car. Whenever you meet a homeless person you believe needs help, offer him or her a resource guide and a phone card.
A friend of mine called a homeless outreach program about a battered woman living on her town's streets. The social workers not only reached out to the woman and got her the help she needed, they also sent my friend update emails that updated their woman's care. New York City has a special hotline number -- 311 -- that citizens can call for help for the homeless. You'd be surprised at the assistance is available -- it's up to us to spread the word to those who need the help.
5) Model for your child how to treat every human being with dignity and kindness. Whenever you meet a homeless person, smile and offer a kind word. If we all found a home in our hearts for the homeless, our children might someday live in a world where every person has a safe, warm place to sleep every night.
I would love to hear how you've helped the homeless, please share with me now at www.facebook.com/cristinacarlino. Give our community your inspiring ideas. We are chatting live now!
Cristina Carlino is a mother, poet and the founder and creator of philosophy skincare, on of the most beloved brands in cosmetic history. Carlino is currently working on Project Miracle, a grassroots social network connecting miracle-makers to the miraculous. Be an angel and make a miracle. To learn more, join Cristina at Facebook.com/CristinaCarlino