The Homeless of the 21st Century

by Connie Lemacks-Davis

It was a lovely summer evening and stretched across the sky an array of pastel colors lingered from a beautiful sunset. As we drove down a busy street in the usual heavy traffic, we stopped for a red light and happened to glance across the street. There she was – the same little gray-haired, wrinkled faced woman that we had seen many times, pushing an old rusty grocery cart filled high with crumpled clothing hanging over the side, plastic bags of food and other gems that she had found in garbage containers along the way. Although it was warm, she wore layers of soiled clothing and a scruffy hat too small for her head. Appearing to be very tired and weary, she slowly crossed the street trying to manage her heavy load. Finally, approaching the other side she struggled to push her cart of treasure over the curb.

My daughter, who was a teenager at the time watched with great interest and asked, “Why in the world would that pitiful old lady push around that pile of junk?”

“Well, sweetheart,” I replied, “it isn’t junk to her—because that is everything she owns in this world.”
“How sad,” my daughter responded. We sat in silence for a moment waiting for the green light. We expressed our compassion for this precious woman, knowing she was someone’s mother or grandmother who somehow lost her way in life, leaving her with nothing material and homeless.

In numerous movies, we have seen stories about a very wealthy man who suddenly lost his fortune, ending up on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. There he stood, with hands in his pockets — no credit cards, no cash, and without a change of clothing. What now? He quickly learned that he had entered into a world unknown to his usual glamorous lifestyle as a millionaire and an entrepreneur. No Lincoln Town Car, no associates at his side, no friends came to his rescue. “How could this happen to me?” he thought.

As a man accustomed to only the best in life, at first, he snubbed the “real homeless group of people” lying around on the sidewalk with the smell of alcohol, wearing filthy clothes that didn’t fit their bodies. Some were sleeping in large boxes in the middle of the day and others digging in the garbage cans looking for food thrown away by someone of greater financial means who didn’t want it. After all, he was different from all of them, so he thought.

But he eventually found it necessary to bond with this desolate homeless group of people in order to survive – sharing their boxes for shelter, trading his expensive clothes for food, and slept with rats and insects crawling around him at night. Months went by as he struggled to survive, going filthy without baths or a change of clothing and, yes, broke. Fortunately, the movie usually ends with the man overcoming his streak of bad luck and returns to his life of wealth.

Of course, that is the way it happens in the movies, but in real life, far too many men and women have found it necessary to live among the homeless people who stay in cardboard boxes on the street and wear layers of filthy clothes that smell of stench that most of us could not endure. In fact, many people pass them by without a second look, stepping to the far side of the walkway making certain that unclean group of people didn’t touch their nicely pressed expensive suit, or step on their genuine leather shoes.
This sad, pathetic scenario is the perspective of what most of the worldviews as “the homeless.” But is that really the “homeless” people of the 21st Century now found across the United States?

Thousands of middle-class men and women have now surprisingly found themselves in an unbelievable, overwhelming situation. They once lived in a nice home with beautiful furniture and personal belongings, had a good job, and beautiful clothing; but without warning – suddenly, they lost their employment or a business, leaving them without finances for mortgage payments and the many monthly obligations.

Hundreds of couples or singles who were leasing a condo had to vacate suddenly after being informed by a landlord that their condo was being sold out of necessity. In hearing one couple describe their story, they were in disbelief and felt numb, as they carefully began to wrap fine china and beautiful ceramics, statues and antiques. Then hesitantly, still thinking this must only be a dream that will surely change any moment — they slowly removed sentimental pictures from the walls, packed piles of boxes with all of their belongings that would later go into a truck and taken to a storage unit. Once everything was moved out on the condo they loved so much, they stood there looking around at the bare walls and empty rooms that no longer contained the things that made it their home. With nothing left to do and in sadness they closed and locked the door, leaving their keys behind in a small tin lock box that left a clanking sound as the keys were dropped inside. Standing there, they looked down the hall once more before walking to the garage to get in the car and drive through the gate as it opened and closed for the last time.

As many other couples, the immediate plan was to spend only a few weeks with family until they could get back on their feet. Driving away from their home still pondering over leaving a home they loved behind, perhaps in tears, they may have reminded themselves, “This is an emotional experience, but it is only temporary. Soon, we will have another job, find another lovely place to live and get all of our belongings out of storage and everything will be fine!”

Three weeks went by and no job. One month, then two months quickly passed by – but nothing! Over and over they thought, “How can this be happening to me? I’ve worked hard all of my life never having to ask anyone for anything, especially never being without their own place to live!” For the couple sharing this story, the situation became embarrassing for them, and as many others have done, they moved again – this time with a friend who invited them to sleep on their sofa and stay with them on a temporary basis while seeking a job. What a humbling experience!

Many people can relate to this sad, but true story. They were expecting to be relocated within a few weeks or months, but now report that it has been 7 months to one year and still unable to secure a good job that would cover the first and last lease payment plus a security deposit required for another place to live. Not only do they need employment, they also need a place to live. They are trying to start over from zero! The frustration and feelings of humiliation have turned to depression, with sleepless nights and feelings of despair and hopeless. Each and every day they think, “How can this happen in America? How can this happen to me?”

We are talking about intelligent middle-class working people. They may still look the same, dressed in nice clothes, the hair is well groomed and they attempt to put on a smile for everyone as if everything is fine – but on the inside, they are sad and depressed, not knowing what to do and wondering how much longer they can stay with friends or family. They can hardly remember what it was like to sleep in their wonderful bed in the privacy of their own home.

When meeting friends, or applying for a job – they say, “We are temporarily staying with family,” or “we are in a transitional period and in the interim, this is our temporary address.”
But the truth is … they are HOMELESS!

No, they are not pushing a rusty old cart full of dirty second-hand clothing, and food someone left behind in the garbage, or plastic bags full of what most would consider junk. They are not sleeping in pasteboard boxes on the streets of Los Angeles among the rats, bugs, or insects – but this group of hard working; well-dressed people who are still driving nice cars are indeed HOMELESS!

Society is usually eager to help those whom they consider as homeless. There are shelters and soup kitchens for many of them. Churches raise money to help complete strangers off of the street if they come by and ask for assistance. And yes, all of that is very much needed…

But what about the middle-class people who look just like you do, but are without an income and cannot get a supplemental check from the government? Most of them no longer have credit cards and no cash. What about this group of people? This isn’t a movie — it is real life in the 21st Century and unless people reach out to help them get back on their feet what will happen to them? Who really has compassion for a person who is dressed well, drives a nice car and from all appearances, everything seems to be perfect?
Perhaps it is time to look around you and recognize a “21st Century homeless person” who is really hurting and needs your help. Can you take few minutes from your busy schedule to do a little networking that might provide them with a job? Can you refer them to a friend or business associate? What would you want someone else to do if it were YOU in that hopeless situation?

The purpose in this story is to say to America, “There are middle-class homeless people all around you – even if they look well-dressed and driving a nice car instead of pushing an old rusty grocery cart, wearing layers of stinking dirty clothes. It is time for our country to realize there are various types of homeless people who need assistance. Be alert … reach out to the homeless people in your circle of friends. God forbid, but the same thing could happen to you!”

Remember, you cannot always judge a book by the cover.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better (more) than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.—Philippians 2:3-4 (NIV)

But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?–1 John 3:17 (KJV)

Used by permission, © 2010.

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