Last Saturday at the St. Thomas the Apostle Breakfast Club, which caters to those who can’t afford a hot breakfast – meaning the poor and homeless – I struck up a conversation with one of our regulars, a woman named Pat. Normally, I don’t probe into our patron’s situations. I don’t want to pry and I don’t want them to ever feel as if part of the price of a free meal is an interrogation. But with Pat, maybe because she seemed more like a universal grandmother and I figured that she fell more into the poor versus homeless category, I did something I never do, I said, “Pat, what is your story?”
She looked at me and said, “I had a small apartment in Burbank that I could afford with my Social Security. But the landlord knew he could make more money if he could get me out so he started doing all sorts of things to make my life miserable.”
“And he won?”
“So, where do you live?”
“I don’t live anywhere.”
“But where do you sleep?”
“I sleep in the park.”
I have seen this woman twice a month for several years and she would be the last person in the room I would identify as homeless. She is always well-groomed, alert, polite, and has the look of a quintessential grandmother. She appears to be around 70-years-old.
Pat went on to tell me that she has come to accept her life as it is and that the whole experience has deepened her relationship with God. “I live one day at a time,” she said, “and focus on the now. This is how I’ve learned to survive.”
Since Saturday, I have wrestled with several questions related to Pat and her homelessness. First and foremost, when did the United States become a country where it is possible for 70-year-old women (or men, for that matter) to find themselves so utterly lacking in resources that their only alternative is to sleep overnight in public parks? When I was growing up, the level of homelessness was a fraction of what it is today, and it was virtually unheard of for a woman to be put in such a vulnerable position, much less one who was elderly. Now, I see many older women with shopping carts on the streets in Los Angeles and I am certain they are bedding down in parks, alleys, and anywhere else they can find that might provide a modicum of safety. How have we as a country gone so far afield as to allow this to happen to some of our most vulnerable citizens?
Second, are we becoming so inured to the presence of the homeless in our society that we simply accept this social condition as part of the status quo? What does that say about us as a society and does it auger well for our future as a nation?
I would argue that it does not. As a “Christian” nation, one might consider the words of Jesus Christ when He said, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” But as a nation that reflects multiple faith traditions, one might also note the words of Buddha when he said, “If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path,” or of Mohammad when he said, “The one who looks after a widow or a poor person is like a Mujahid (warrior) who fights for Allah’s Cause, or like him who performs prayers all the night and fasts all the day;” or as it is written in the Torah, “Whoever sees a poor man requesting help and turns away from him without giving him charity violates a negative command.”
What will it take for us as Americans to act? Perhaps we simply need to ask ourselves one simple question: “What if Pat were my grandmother?”
The answer is she is your grandmother. And mine.
We, as a nation, need to step up and help those who are in need around us. We need to help the Pats of this world so that they can sleep in safety.
We need to help them so we can sleep in good conscience.