The Homeless Reality


As I write, the weather station says that it’s 1° F, but it feels like -17°F. With the wind chill, it’s expected to drop as low as -30°F tonight. Tomorrow will more of the same. Even with the furnace chugging away, the perimeters of the house are cold. Upon passing by the windows and doors, one would swear they were wide open; sometimes as I go by, I check just to make sure. They’re closed. This is a pretty sturdy house, but in cold temps like this, nothing stops the drafts. My ceramic mug with the silicone lid keeps my tea hot for only a short time, so I drink it fast because I’m feeling too lazy to reheat it. I’m grateful for my lined hoodie and double-layered sweatpants, even though I still shiver a bit here and there, because I know there are folks out in this night wind without warm clothing. Although I dread the cold weather and complain about it every year, I know it could be so much worse, and for some folks, it is.

Some years back, I did a story on homeless shelters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and it truly was a life-changing experience. I know journalists say that a lot – and I’ve said it myself in the past – but I really do mean that it changed my life. I was a twenty-something upstart and had heard that homeless people are homeless because they want to be. They’re slovenly and lack ambition, I was told. If they had the will power, they could pull themselves right up out of those gutters and live a normal life. I believed all that, hook, line, and sinker. Until I walked into my first homeless shelter.

It was during a cold snap similar to the one we’re going through right now, and my task was to report on how the shelters were managing, since there was sure to be an influx of persons needing protection from the elements. The director, an energetic guy dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, took me on the grand tour of the converted century-old school building. The rooms were filled with rows upon rows of beds – collections of mismatched frames and bedding – not all that comfortable looking, but better than concrete and cardboard in the sub-zero temps. There were tables and chairs in some of the corners in case anyone wanted to play cards or chew the fat. The kitchen was set up with hot coffee and tea and some donated baked goods, but not much else since the budget didn’t really permit it. Basically, the director explained to me, the shelter’s task wasn’t to feed or clothe the guests, but simply to keep the homeless from freezing to death. Taking all of this in, I couldn’t imagine how any human being would want to be forced into such conditions.

What struck me harder were the faces of the guests. They were not the faces of contented people having the time of their lives; they were the faces of distraught individuals who had run out of options. The faces spoke of hardship and a strange camaraderie among those who shared the same plight – a contorted, desperate brotherhood. Yet, overshadowing the despair was an air of gratitude and peace because, for at least one night, they had a warm place to sleep and the company of others who understood them and their unfortunate circumstances.

That drafty old building, the maze of beds, and the weary, strained faces of the homeless, have remained with me all these years. I think of them when it snows, but especially I think of them when the temp drops below zero. I think of them as I pile on another layer of clothing and wrap my chilly hands around a mug of hot tea. I think of them, but also I pray and offer sacrifices for them, and I urge others to do the same. The homeless don’t choose to be homeless; they’re real people who, for a variety of causes and reasons, have become stuck in a wretched cycle of destitution and shame. No one wishes nor deserves that.

I noticed that, in the latest edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, there’s an article on how the homeless shelters are faring during this cold snap. Another young reporter is being initiated into the reality of the homeless. I hope, I pray, that it impacts her as deeply as it did me so that she, too, never forgets.


About Author

Marge is a CatholicLane columnist.

  • When I worked at the homeless shelter one of my duties was to check clients in for the night. We would hold a brief interview and ask some basic questions. One of the questions asked for an emergency contact person. I remember more than once, the man would give the name of a brother or sister or other relative right here in town – and I would think, your sister lives in town but you’re checking into the homeless shelter?

    I don’t mean to blame the well-off relative who would not take in one of their own, because there was probably hurt enough on both sides that led to the estrangement. But still, those experiences will always stay with me, because I can’t help but think of my own situation. I would have been homeless on several occasions apart from the care of my family. If I had nowhere to go, what would I do? A heated building with a mat on the floor beats a cardboard box any day.

  • Cheryl Dickow

    There is a homeless man who stands on a corner in our area day after day holding a sign: Homeless, need work.

    I’ve given him a few dollars here and there and pray for him every single time I pass him (and throughout my day) but yet have no real idea what to do that will make a difference in this man’s life.

    Yesterday it was -5 degrees in the morning and continues to be so today as well. I can’t even think about this man without my heart breaking.

    What do we do in these situations?

    • I have struggled for a long time with what to do for sidewalk panhandlers. I used to see them frequently when I lived in large cities on the West Coast and the past few years, we’ve been seeing them in my small Midwestern city. For a while I was taking Jesus’ admonition, “Give to all who beg from you,” literally, and I was passing out dollar bills to everyone I saw. Then after that became impossible I started saying a prayer, even a simple “Bless you,” each time I saw someone.

      I think the advice to connect people with an agency is unrealistic, but if someone asks you for specific help, you can offer it. Once a young man came up to me on the street in front of my house and asked how he could find an attorney to appeal his disability claim. I got for him a phone book and we looked someone up in the Yellow Pages, and as this was Friday afternoon I said, “So you’re going to call this person on Monday. Will you be okay until then?” And he said he would be. I thought to myself, mission successful.

      But it’s a very hard thing when you want to do at least something for everyone. I think most of the time a prayer is the best thing we can offer. You can also make it known to God that you’re available to help if the situation is appropriate.

      • Cheryl Dickow

        Thank you for helping with your words of wisdom–and from your experiences (Marge, too). I find this to be a difficult position to be in but after having read your responses, I feel that I am doing what I am asked to do in keeping this man before God in my prayers.

  • Marge Fenelon

    Cheryl, it’s hard to know how to handle those situations. When I did a similar story for another publication, the administrator of a social service agency told me NOT to give cash, because there’s a high percentage of scammers who are just trying to get money to buy drugs and alcohol, and that merely encourages them. He said instead to connect them with an agency that can help them. But… how? What if that person is truly in need? There’s no easy answer. For myself, I think I’d err on the side of spontaneous generosity.

    PrairieHawk, that’s an aspect of this topic I hadn’t seen before. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  • Catholic Mom

    There is unfortunately a LARGE percentage of the homeless population that want to be that way. They are mentally ill and don’t want mental health services or accountability. It is a sad state. I am speaking from experience. If you look at studies, such as one done in NY a few decades ago, they had grants for the people they found on the street. They said we’re going to give you an apartment for free with heat, water, etc all for free. The overwhelming majority of them didn’t want it. Why? THey didn’t want the accountability. My sibling is paranoid and the thought of someone checking in on him or him having to follow rules is the last option he’ll take.There is a substance abuse issue. Thankfully, he knows when to come in from the cold and where to get help/food when needed. Am I heartless? I hope not. We, as a family, pray and fast for him weekly. If he won’t accept help, there isn’t much we can do. He took himself off assistance because that was a hand out, yet he’ll be for food and money for his viced. God be with them all. This isn’t where they thought they’d be when they were dreaming dreams of growing up.

    • Yes there are a lot of homeless who are content with their lifestyle. At the shelter we called them “the professionally homeless.” They knew shelters in every city they frequented and would travel between them. Our shelter had a reputation throughout the Midwest as a “good shelter,” so we were almost always full. The professionals know where to go when they need a shower, a hot meal, a bus ticket, or whatever. And I think it’s what Catholic Mom said, they don’t want to be accountable for their lives, they are content to be takers. I would console myself with the knowledge that they, as do we all, have a judge who is both merciful and just, and we will all be accountable for the way we’ve lived our lives.

    • Marge Fenelon

      Many sides to this complicated issue. Thanks for sharing your own experiences, Catholic Mom. I agree that some do feel more comfortable in those circumstances, even though it seems unfathomable to the rest of us. It’s the ones who really are caught in misfortune that breaks my heart, and I’ve know folks personally in situations like that.

      • Jacob Suggs

        Yeah, terms like “voluntary” and “more comfortable” get a little bit blurry here. Many of these people are caught in a cycle of their own making, involving drugs and compounded by mental illness – but no less caught in a cycle. You have a situation where a person wants two incompatible things constantly, and constantly chooses the option of paranoia and/or drugs instead of breaking out. All we can do is help those few out who choose to break the cycle, and do our best to keep the others from freezing or starving to death.

        Not that it makes it any less heartbreaking. It may in fact make it worse, that a person can freely choose the option that is worse in every possible way and feel driven to do so. (I have this image of God banging His head against a wall while Adam and Eve eat the apple.) We just have to be careful that we use the knowledge that some of the problems are self-inflicted to let us help more effectively and not to avoid helping. If the just response to self-inflicted harm was to ignore it, then humanity would be in a pretty sorry state salvation-wise.

  • Tarheel

    Homeless. What a scary thought. Even scarier is how do we as Christians help these people. This is a nationwide dilemma with no easy answer.

    As Vincentian with the St Vincent de Paul Society here in Mobile AL, we have been approached and have helped the homeless more than once. One rule we do follow, we do not give them money. I know a few fellow Vincentians have given them a “card” from McDonald’s to buy some food but never cash. And I have more than once referred a few to shelters in the area. But these actions are merely “band-aids” to the real problem.

    Articles like this raise questions about this situation and bring awareness to the problem. I really don’t think there are but a very, very small number that want to stay homeless. I do agree that that have some mental health issues. And this makes me wonder about how as a nation we are providing care for those with mental health issues.

    As for those that use the cash given them to buy alcohol or drugs, then we need to look at how we as a country provide this kind of care and treatment. I don’t think anyone ever wakes up one day and decides that they will be an alcoholic or drug addict. Those addictions “sneak up” on you before you know it. And these two issues may be the biggest among the homeless. So how do we provide this kind of treatment for them. We all they cannot get it on their own.

    I must admit that before I joined the Society of St Vincent de Paul, I was had a “bad attitude” towards the homeless. When I saw one I would just about always think to myself or talk out loud “Go get a job!”. But the Society changed me. Now when I see a homeless person I wonder what can we do to help them?

    Good article. THanks!

  • Leilani Witten

    READING YOUR ARTICLES IN TEARS… WENT OUT AND GIVEN ALL MY WARM SMALL BLANKETS OLD AND NEW ONES (CHRISTMAS GIFTS) TO THE HOMELESS SLEEPING UNDER THE BRIDGE BY THE BEACH… I see how Jesus would weep and cry tears for the poor and the beggars especially this winter time, cold outside for the homeless. Sad. ” When I was cold you gave me your coat ” whatsoever you do to least of my brethren you, did it unto me ” I don’t need to judge them, I only see Jesus in their eyes.

  • Mr. Rational

    If this country were truly rational and atheist, involuntary euthanasia would solve this problem in 72 hours.

    • Marge Fenelon

      Well then, Mr. Rational, thanks be to God that we are not truly rational and atheist. Involuntary euthanasia solves nothing. I will pray for you, sir.

    • Tarheel

      Rational? Atheist? Involuntary euthanasia? Thankfully we have a “just rationality” and we are still a Christian nation. I have read in other forums about euthanasia and how it could solve so many ills of society. When I read comments like this I wonder if those people in favor of killing people have ever done so. It is quite easy to say “kill them” but harder to do so. (Sorry Mr Rational euthanasia it is still killing it just sounds nicer). Killing a fellow human stays with you for ever. I know. I have to do so in times of war. Even now 30 plus years later, I still have trouble sleeping at night.

      As Marge Fenelon stated she will pray you. I will to.

    • Sorry, as one of the people you’d be euthanizing, I’m here to say I love my life. May God’s grace be with you.

      • Marge Fenelon

        We’re glad you’re here, too, PrairieHawk! You’re an example and inspiration to all of us.

  • Alms giving is a form of penance. When we encounter the poor it is not so much the charitable care of the poor with wich we are faced, but the spiritual state of our souls. If we are sinners we do penance and one form of penance that our Lord gave us is alms giving. As the CCC tells us, when we give to the poor it is an act of justice, not charity because what we give rightfully belongs to the poor. Far too often we excuse ourselve thinking, this person is probably trying to scam me, when in reality we are being given a chance to do penance for our sins. Dorothy Day was beaten up, robbed, through our in the street and worse by the poor. When she was asked why she put up with it she responded, “these are the poor.” In other words, Christ is asking us to love them, not change their lives – unless we can. He told us we would always have the poor with us. Read Les Miserables, the Bishop knew how to treat the poor!

  • cmom

    If someone has a diagnosed illness such as schizophrenia or paranoia and cannot take care of themselves they should be put in an institution where they are forced to take their meds. That sounds harsh but the alternative of living on the street because you don’t have the mental capacity to take care of yourself, meets my concept of cruel and unusual punishment and shouldn’t be acceptable in society.

    Several years ago I looked out a 2nd floor window from my job and watched a man struggle to walk on the street below. There were blood trails behind him. We immediately called the paramedics. Parts of his FEET were falling off from gangrene.He went to the hospital where they bandaged him but he left and refused further treatment. Some days later he was found dead in an abandoned building. The fact that he could not be locked up is tragic and unacceptable and haunts me to this day.

    • Schizophrenia is one of my diagnoses and I know what it’s like to be released by the police when you obviously and desperately need help, only to get in more (and life-threatening) trouble later. It seems that nearly getting yourself killed is the only way to earn a hospital admission in some jurisdictions. Many mentally ill persons, such as myself, have been successfully “mainstreamed” (with a great deal of help and patience from family and community) but I would wholeheartedly support commitment (either short or long-term) to group homes that require their patients to take their meds. I would also like to bring back the sanatorium for the most serious cases. There could be tiers of support for people based on the severity of their illness and their demonstrated willingness to take their meds. Real improvement and a fulfilling life are possible – but you have to be willing to work for it.