For the past two years, there has been a steady stream of street people lining up one week a month at 8 pm. Doors open at 9 p.m. for overnight shelter, perhaps in the gym that hosts athletic contests. A safe, warm place to sleep, a cup of coffee and simple breakfast at 7 a.m., and then it's back to the street. People come and go, and I see them regularly in town, at the Square or the Public Library, at the local Food Bank. Some are just passing through, and may only stick around for a few months, others have become fixtures, distinct characters in our community.
Last year there was a couple who just showed up, as most of the street people do. They had backpacks, gym bags and shopping carts covered with rain tarps, all packed neatly and managed equally between them. Couples are a rare sight, but this man and woman were clearly together, middle aged, dressed in matching hunter-orange cover-alls, and together throughout the day. I would see them walking down to the Salvation Army for lunch, then in the afternoon, in one of the local parks. Later, it was back to whatever area church was hosting the shelter for the night. It's a small community, and people are noticed, especially in hunter-orange.
One day, I realized I hadn't seen them for awhile, and knew that they were gone, probably traveling on to some other community that might sustain them for awhile.
The newest street people are those living in their cars. In the past year, along with a few PA locals, there have been cars from Idaho, Wisconsin, and Florida. For some weeks last month, a middle aged man with a Bronco packed to the roof, Wisconsin plates, was parked in front of the house. Most the time, the car was locked, other times, he sat behind the wheel and just gazed out the window for several hours. On sunny days, he stood outside on the sidewalk dressed in clean shorts and a T-shirt, looking as if he was just hanging out, chillin', waiting for a friend.
In fact, he looked so un-street like, it took me awhile to realize he had no where else to go but the front seat of the Bronco. Sitting in the driver's seat perhaps gave him the impression he was actually going somewhere, but he had ended up in front of my house, waiting.
A few weeks later, the Bronco was gone, and I missed seeing him standing on the sidewalk.
He never spoke to me.
In fact, a simple "Good Morning" often goes without response as I pass street people on my way to work. It doesn't matter to me. I can't imagine how deeply embedded they may be in their difficulty, perhaps in their addiction or lack of home, shelter, healthcare, the ordinary trappings that most of us take for granted. Other times, if I'm with my dog, he's an open invitation for small talk and the opportunity to sink hands into his thick fur and relish the simple love only a dog can illicit. I watch my dog and realize he has virtually no bias or avertion, he simply approaches all humans with love, and it is usually returned.
This week, a loaded down Buick with Florida plates. And a new couple. Again, middle aged, a point in their lives when they probably expected to be enjoying grandchildren and looking forward to retirement. They stand together each morning outside the car, smoking and talking, looking at the car as if it might offer a new solution they hadn't considered. In the front seat, a set of folding beach chairs. Where has this couple been and where are they going? What are the circumstances of their lives this morning? And will it be any different tomorrow? In a month or a year?
They take items out of the car, move things from bags, re-arrange boxes. I don't know how there was even room for two as they drove here, as full as the car is. They've been parked in the same place for over a week now, but they haven't been ticketed on street cleaning days--the local Police recognize homelessness when they see it.
They are an ordinary couple. They are my husband and me. They are my mother and father. They are your mother and father. Perhaps they lost their home to the past 12 months of crushing financial disaster and mayhem--so many, many people have been cut loose, untethered from what was once a fundamental source of stability and security.
These are ordinary people facing extrodinary circumstances.
How does one work, if there is no home? How does one function within the fabric of a community without work, without a home, without daily bread? And whose responsibility is it to lend assistance, when it appears that even my President Obama can not staunch the flow of this country's life blood, its priceless resource of humanity?
Sadly, I expect to see many more cars-as-homes on my community's streets.