Just moments into the discussion, I knew where it was going. A group of women had gathered over coffee, and for reasons that now escape me, the topic turned to the homeless.
"You know what I don’t understand?" one woman began rather stridently. "Where are their families? Why should their care be left to government hand-outs and charities?"
"Yeah," several women agreed. "Don’t the homeless have families to care for them?"
Should I or shouldn’t I? I wondered. Did I have the emotional energy to enter the controversy?
I put my toe into the water. "Do any of you know a homeless person?" I asked tentatively.
All eyes turned to me, rather shocked. It was a why-would-I-be-personally-acquainted-with-someone-like-that? look.
"Um, no," several women answered. "Do you?"
"Yes," I stated. "And I know that many homeless people previously held jobs and had homes. Many worked hard but lived one paycheck away from disaster. All it takes is a few bad choices or some really bad luck, and they’re on the streets."
"But why don’t the families help?" someone asked again.
"Often, they do," I replied. "If they didn’t, there would be far more homeless people on the streets. But sometimes, the families can no longer help. Let’s say the person chooses addiction or crime."
I dove in. "Let me give you an example: My younger sister started using drugs and alcohol when she was 12. My parents got her into treatment programs, AA, counseling, the works. Nothing helped. She began stealing to support her drug habit. At one point, friends got her into a year-long residential drug program. When she completed it, she moved in with my husband and me. We helped her get a job and let her use my car. Before long, however, she was back into drugs. She lost the job. She cracked up the car. She stole from us. It became unlivable. We were actually enabling her destructive choices. We were also inviting drugs and violence into our home."
"But you wouldn’t let her live on the streets, would you?" a woman asked. "It’s incredibly dangerous."
"Let’s say a friend is staying with you, and he leaves his loaded pistol on your kitchen table every day," I suggested by way of an answer. "Your little kids can reach the gun whenever they wish. Would you allow that? Of course not! Either he’d have to get rid of the gun, or he’d have to leave your home. It would be his choice.
"My situation was similar, except that it involved drugs instead of guns. One day, my sister stopped by for dinner, tossing her purse onto the couch. A moment later, my tiny daughter toddled over to the couch and reached into the purse. Do you know what was in it? A loaded hypodermic needle – a dirty needle that had been passed around between drug users who had HIV.
"That’s when my husband and I told my sister that she could not visit our home as long as she was abusing drugs. I would never send her away hungry or lacking in warm clothes, and when she stopped using drugs, she would again be welcome.
"I loved my sister as my own self. I would have done anything to help her, but you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped."
Again, silence. "Hmmm," mused the woman beside me. "I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective."
"Where is your sister now?" another woman asked.
"She spent 20 years cross-addicted to drugs and alcohol," I began. "By the time she finally broke free of the addiction, she had contracted HIV – the virus that causes AIDS. This was in the mid-1980s. There were no drugs, no remedies for HIV back then, so life expectancy was brief. When she died, however, my sister knew that she was loved. She had a place to live, her family surrounded her, and she knew beyond doubt that God forgives even the most stubborn sinner."
We were quiet for a long moment. Then I added, "When you see a homeless person, remember that the person is someone’s son or sister or father. Even if there have been poor choices, I urge you to treat him as a human being who deserves respect. There are plenty of success stories of homeless people regaining their lives. Picture that in your mind, rather than what you see in front of you. After all, whatever we do to the least of these, Christ’s brethren, we do unto him."
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer. She is the author of Do Bad Guys Wear Socks? Living the Gospel in Everyday Life.