I got to experience a little bit of empathy for what it feels like to be homeless recently. My church is part of a group of churches that participate in a program called “Families Moving Forward.” Families who have recently become homeless can use this program, which offers them a place to stay as well as help in finding permanent housing, jobs if they need it, or whatever they need to get back on their feet. The churches offer the “place to stay” component of the program, and each church takes turns hosting for a week, every few months. We set up the basement for them–each Sunday School room becomes a bedroom for a family; the large room where we have church dinners becomes their dining room, and in the corner is their “living room”, with chairs and sofas gathered around a TV and DVD player. Church members donate food, cook the dinners and breakfasts, stay overnight, and generally help out. I help out with the childcare, spending time with the children in the evening, bringing over Playdough ( a big hit), games and books. I’ve done this twice. The first time, in the fall, there were 3 or 4 families. This time there were more, and quite a few more small children and babies. A sign of the economic times, no doubt.
So I had to think, as I was playing with these young children while their parents sat in the corner watching TV, what must it be like to have to move every week to a new place to live? What must it be like to have almost no privacy, and to have to make conversations and get to know strangers constantly, as each new group of volunteers at each church sits down to dinner with you? The first time I did this, the parents paid no attention to me and the other volunteers as we played with their children. They just stared at the TV, and talked and laughed with each other. And at first, I felt like this was strange–until I put myself in their place. Then I thought of how emotionally wearing it would be to have to be friendly with a new set of strangers night after night, when you’re already worn out from the day and all your troubles. Plus, you’re indebted to these people for their help, and I would think you might not feel like trying to relate to someone who is going home to their nice warm house and all their possessions when they’re done volunteering.
The children both times have been wonderful–open, friendly, and delighted to play with the things I bring and with me. So, how is it for them? What is it like to have a parade of strangers come into their lives, new ones each day, people who are kind and friendly and then disappear? I sense that they’re used to quickly sizing people up and making friends in the moment. Of course, children are very present-oriented, so perhaps it is not as strange or difficult for them as it is for adults. Still, the transiency of their lives must be very hard for them. The kids talked about their preschool class, so they do have the constant of school and teachers, and of course their parents and siblings are their rock to hold onto as everything else changes from day to day.
As I said, this is only a small glimmer of empathy I experienced for the homeless; I do not pretend to have any true understanding of what it would be like without having experienced it myself. Still, in these times when people are losing their homes due to foreclosures all over the place, it is important to pay attention to the real people who are living out the stories we hear on the news.