I keep running into people I know at my town's local homeless shelter. I go there to serve and I come away feeling I myself have been served with a healthy dose of reality, humbleness, and grace.
This isn't the hard-core shelter for the chronically homeless and addicted. (Not that they too don't deserve our compassion.) This is a family shelter for down-on-their-luck Americans who have no other place to lay their head for the night. Some have cars and low-paying jobs - but they don't have shelter. Some have laptops. Most have cell phones and email addresses, but they can't afford rent, food, and health care.
Something is very wrong in America. I feel this as I leave the shelter and travel through neighborhoods with boarded up houses and the tell-tale brown grass of abandoned homes. There was a time when many of these houses, in Western Riverside County, sold for half-a-million dollars and more. The 'bubble' as it was called, made a lot of homeowners feel as though they would be wealthy forever. When it burst, and the rest of the economy turned south, jobs were lost and so many fell. They are still falling. Some are calling our area the 'Detroit of the West.'
When Richard (of course I won't use his real name) walked into the kitchen shelter and gave me a warm embrace, I assumed he was volunteering to serve like I was. The last time I had seen him we were working together as volunteers for the Obama campaign. He, his wife, and children spent a lot of time at the field office and I was told he had been involved in community activities for quite awhile. I never knew for sure what he did for a living, only that he ran a local business.
After our embrace I noticed the expression on Richard's face and it told me he wasn't a volunteer at the shelter. He had come to the kitchen area to request that two plates be put aside for his sons who hadn't arrived yet from school. "Don't worry about this," he said. "This is just a temporary blip."
"What happened?" I wanted to say but couldn't. I know what happened. I hear the stories on an almost daily basis. I know there are families sleeping in cars in the parking lots of the many shopping centers that sprung up the past five years and are now filled with empty stores. I know of people who used their retirement savings to open shops in what they thought would be bustling shopping centers once the nearby new home tracts were occupied. They lost their money.
I see all the additional cars in the three-car-garage driveways and I know families are doubling up in the five-bedroom-plus 'affordable' homes that attracted so many from Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
I see the large number of yard sale signs on nearly every corner on weekends. I read a news story of a woman having to sell her cherished dining room table on eBay, and from the details I knew it was a mom from my kid's school. She later confirmed and told me of the neighbors she sees at the food pantries.
For middle class Americans the distance between having the basics and not having them is the smallest it's ever been. The bricks keep piling on... joblessness, astronomical health care premiums and cost for services, high utility fees, mortgages which can't be reset, loss of credit for personal or business needs, skyrocketing tuition with lowering educational access, and watching our communities crumble.
All we are left with are our big-screen TVs, gas-guzzling cars, and our iPhones.
We can't 'hope' our way out of this or pretend it is just a 'temporary blip.' There is going to have to be a fundamental shift in the way we live our lives and what we value. It doesn't take a visit to a homeless shelter to know this.
I'm going to continue this conversation. It can't be all bad because I hear there are more families playing board games together. Also, more home-cooked meals. And, having multiple generations in the same house could have some advantages.
Now, I am wondering - how did we ever get to the point where it was desired to have two or more empty bedrooms just for the heck of it?
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