What does home mean for those without steady houses?
"We must recover the whole sense of gift, of gratuitousness, of solidarity. Rampant capitalism has taught the logic of profit at all costs, of giving to get, of exploitation without looking at the person… and we see the results in the crisis we are experiencing! This Home [homeless shelter] is a place that teaches charity, a "school' of charity, which instructs me to go encounter every person, not for profit, but for love."
This is a quote from my favorite homily by Pope Francis. When I first read it in 2014, I was on top of the world. By the standards of the world, I had made it. After growing up in poverty, I had attended college on a full scholarship, had graduated with honors and two bachelors degrees, and was now preparing for the comprehensive examinations to complete my graduate program. I was the American "success story," the child who escaped the cycle of poverty through hard work, getting into college and earning multiple degrees. My future was bright, and I was filled with joy, knowing how blessed I was by God.
Nine months later, I was once again reading the same homily from Pope Francis. Although the words on the page remained the same, my life could not have changed more radically. I had been a happy graduate, newly employed with my dream job; a few short months later, I was homeless.
The last week I spent in my dream apartment was the week before Thanksgiving. The majority of my possessions were in storage, all except my mattress, a duffle bag of clothes, my laptop, and a stack of books. It was one of the most difficult weeks of my life, sitting in the emptiness of that apartment, thinking of my failures and lost dreams, anticipating that at the end of the week, I would not even have the empty space. While others would sit down to give thanks, enjoy a great meal, and spend time with family, I would hand in the keys to my apartment, to my home, all alone.
"It will only be for a few days, maybe a month," I told myself. I had plenty of interviews scheduled and applications sent out. People were networking and making calls. Even more people were praying for me. Something was going to come through soon.
At this point, it has been a little over four months since I became homeless.
My homelessness came from trying to escape the poverty I grew up in and, by the world's standards, failing. As a former perfectionist, that word makes my heart ache when I use it to describe my own life. This experience has been both humbling and humiliating.
Most of my days, (which I call dignity challenging days), I am treated in terms of profit. There is a point where someone looks at me and decides that I am not worth the cost. My dream job decided not to keep me on, and the jobs I apply to now decide I'm not worth the risk. It is hard, especially when I feel that I have done everything right: I worked hard, I overcame everything thrown at me, and I stayed out of trouble. I am fortunate that I have never had to sleep on the street or in my car; many people have made sure I have somewhere to sleep, and for that I am most grateful. But there does not seem to be an end in sight for me, and it seems harder to hope as more weeks go by and nothing changes.
I never really knew just how much home, even the broken ones, have meant to me until I have been without a bed to call my own. The temptation to be sad and to despair can be crippling. I often cry and miss my bed. I long for a home that no longer exists.
Missing my home causes me many different kinds of daily suffering. I am constantly worried that those who have taken me in will see me as a burden and will throw me out one day. Part of this distrust comes from never having a completely stable home, but I also worry because I have not known everyone whom I have stayed with.
When you try to escape poverty and fail, it is often worse for you than it was before. I am exhausted from trying to get help, being treated like a criminal, and then trying to navigate the terrible systems of both governmental and charitable aid, which sometimes take the humanity out of the process of giving and receiving. I know that there are many out there who abuse these systems and take advantage, but I hope that I am never one of them. Even just a small bit of help could make it easier.
My chronic illnesses are often made worse by environmental changes, so the more I move around, the sicker I get. The longer I am continuously sick, the harder it gets to function and be able to help myself.
Then there are the more shallow problems that feed into the bigger ones.
The constant moving around makes it impossible to get anything done. I feel scattered in all aspects of my life, and I feel that I run out of time to get so little completed. There is the brokenness and the emotional complexities I suffer through: worry, about not getting everything done because a delay means a missed opportunity that could change my situation; sadness, when I am tired and want to go take a nap, or have a moment to myself, and I have nowhere to go; rejection, because I have had many, many friends leave me or mistreat me since I became homeless; criticism, because since I failed in the eyes of the world, I suddenly am incapable of having opinions or making decisions without receiving judgment; disregard, because I have so many gifts, talents, and skills that are going unused even by the people who know they are there; helplessness, because my survival is dependent completely on the generosity and kindness of others; and finally, the loss of things that make you feel like a human being. It is no longer fun to socialize with people because I can't relate anymore, because discussions can be hurtful, or because as a homeless person, I am judged. Often in conversations about careers or life matters, I feel that many people no longer trust my opinions because I have failed at obtaining a career and maintaining my own life. Once again, I am seen in terms of profit, even in my own social circles.
One of my friends recently told me how much she values the time I still spend in trying to socialize. She said I do not make others feel bad about their wealth and the way they choose to spend it. She said that, to her, my presence was worth more than any cost to have me there.
In her kind words, my friend reminded me of what home actually is and what family is to me.
My family right now are the hundreds of people who are praying for me, the dozens who have come to my assistance in providing me with food, shelter, and clothing, and most especially the handful of people who wipe my tears when I cry and hold my hand in the difficult moments. My home is in the many homes where I have stayed throughout the last few months, especially the ones where I am welcomed with open arms, being taught to grow in patience, trust, hope, and openness, and receiving the gift of mutual love, without expectation, judgment, or qualification.
The home I am living in right now as I write this, is a place of the most unexpected, deepest healing and consolation. I never imagined that I could find that in a time like this. Even when things are at their worst, God is still full of beautiful surprises. I am not any less blessed than I was before, but instead I am even more blessed to be able to be stripped materially in order to know God. Though the burden is heavy, the ache is deep, and the temptation to give up is overwhelming, I cannot lose hope, which is even greater. One day, I will find that house that God is building for me, where no stone goes unused or is rejected, and all of this will be a memory that, I hope, allows me to help others. I desire to be seen, not for profit, but for love, and that is how I hope I can change the world for others who are marginalized and rejected through the brokenness of home. This part of my life is a time given by God, to prepare me for an extraordinary home and family that awaits me.
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