“Hello, my name is Hannah, and I work with Catholic Charities. Would you mind telling me your story?”
This question was a daily standard when I worked in the communications department at Catholic Charities. For a year, I approached our clients experiencing homelessness and asked if I could take their photographs and share their stories. These encounters led me to three big realizations about homelessness.
Asking a stranger to be vulnerable is terrifying
I remember gearing up each day before heading over to the soup kitchen to meet our clients. Camera and voice recorder in hand, I mentally prepared to invite myself into the most vulnerable realities of complete strangers. I was always nervous about walking up to a stranger and asking them if they would be willing to share about their life.
Yet, I was amazed by how willing these people were to invite me into the intimate details of their lives. I found both profound sorrow and overwhelming hope in their stories. I met single mothers with wills of iron to fight for the future of their children. I met men who allowed one bad choice to define and control them. I stood in the middle of a parking lot and embraced a man who broke down in tears as he told me how he had lost everything — not just his belongings and his work, but his family and everyone he loved. I met so many who struggled with depression, many of whom attempted to take their own lives.
From the first moment of conversation to parting words, my fear of starting an uncomfortable or awkward conversation was replaced with awe for the vulnerability each individual offered. In fact, many were eager to speak to me, as if I was the first person to care about them all day.
Chronic homelessness is a reality
A person is described as “chronically homeless” if they have remained homeless for more than a year. Their homelessness is usually connected to complex health conditions, such as mental illness, physical problems, or substance abuse.
I always loved the idea that Catholic Charities worked hard to provide not just a handout, but a “hand up.” In addition to receiving a warm meal and clothes, our clients have access to a career center, medical attention, and housing aid. I was shocked to learn that the majority chose to remain homeless, despite the many resources available to them.
After hearing several stories, I started to notice a common thread. Many of the individuals I spoke with had experienced some form of trauma — an abusive partner, the death of a loved one, divorce, drug or alcohol addiction. Several clients admitted to me that they had lost everyone and everything they loved. Without anyone to encourage, support, or comfort them — and without anyone to fight for — they lacked the motivation to work or function in society. These individuals weren’t homeless because the resources weren’t there. They were homeless because they had lost the will to be a part of society.
Relational poverty is the great equalizer
It wasn’t long before I realized that I had more in common with my clients than I ever would have expected. Hearing these stories of suffering caused me to reflect on the dark times in my own life. For each major trauma, I was never without a close friend or family member who reminded me of my worth. I can’t imagine where I would be without that support, and I certainly can’t imagine overcoming such difficulties without the overwhelming love that I received from those who were close to me.
We may not all have experienced homelessness, but we all have experienced relational poverty — we all encounter trauma, suffering, or addiction in one way or another; we all desire to be known, and we all desire to be loved. More often than not, when I spoke with people who were chronically homeless, they told me that they were essentially on their own. Many told me I was the first person to look them in the eyes and give them the time of day in weeks.
Since my time at Catholic Charities, I’ve learned to view others with compassion. That word — com-passion — translates to “suffering with.” Through His own passion and death, Christ Himself taught us that suffering with others is the highest form of love. I learned that in order to best love those around me, I must be willing to enter into their suffering.
I’ve also learned to be more intentional with others. I started to make “blessing bags” that hold necessities such as socks, toothpaste, deodorant, and I keep them in my car in case I see someone in need. Each bag has a personal note in it. I’ve found these bags have given me the chance to engage with people whom I would have otherwise driven past. I am well aware that this won’t solve the great issue of chronic homelessness, but it does give me the opportunity to show someone that I see them and that I care, rather than avoiding eye contact as they shuffle around my car uncomfortably.
This practice is teaching me to love with simplicity. It has helped me to focus on what is most important: real, live human beings. So, when a coworker needs to talk about the stress of their day, I resist the urge to show them that I am busy, too. I make a point to turn away from the computer and toward the person. When I have an early morning but a friend needs to talk, I try to practice patience.
Of course, there are times when I am selfish, and there are times when I am the one who needs consolation, but this life is such a beautiful gift we have been given — what a shame it would be to waste any of it. All it takes is using our words and actions to remind one another that we’re deeply connected. As Padre Pio said, “In order to console a soul in its sufferings, point out to it all the good it can still do.”