Matthew’s Story. He is 46 years old.
Homelessness isn’t a disease or a political issue – it is a real life problem that people struggle with each and every minute that passes; people that I call friends. The line seems so thin for those of us that do not have to worry about being homeless at this moment in time. There are guys that I know that are couch hoppers – staying with friends and relatives, going from couch to couch while they can, without overbearing their hosts. Some of the guys I know go days without food, sleeping in shelters when they can. When I first came to Fort Wayne, I came from a big-box church and thought, “What’s wrong with these people?” I’ve come to learn that the question isn’t about fixing homelessness or homeless people. It is about fighting the social and psychological stigmas we as human beings all have of each other – by putting a face to it.
Ten years ago, I started fixing bikes for the needy. It started with picking up parts and broken bikes and repairing them for those that needed it. After a while, I started trading new bikes for people’s broken bikes. This provided a gateway to get to meet people and help impact their lives. The transient lifestyle that comes with no permanent residence makes it difficult to connect sometimes. Other times, you meet people that are simply amazing. One such man, who has told me time and time again that he is homeless by choice – and has been for fourteen years – enduring these hardships to connect with people more than I ever could. He opens doors for people like me, that want to reach out and help those that are either depressed, paranoid, or addicted to drugs. As word spreads, more and more people introduce others to places that can help them. The problem isn’t always with supply and demand – it is about the hoarding mentality.
Often times, when people are desperate – which when you have nothing feels like every minute – they have a hoarding mentality. People really are decent at their core, but when you have so little, it is hard to give it away. All too much have I heard, “Hey, my friend is over there, could you go and give him a bike?” I try to encourage them to give what they have, as we will replace what they have in efforts to begin to break this mentality that there won’t be enough.
But I’m not here to judge – I’m not perfect either. One individual, who had earned a bike by helping repair and learning to repair, stopped at the same strip mall I had one Saturday. While I parked to go into a restaurant with my family, I noticed he had gone in a nearby store – a liquor store. My first thought was of complete anger – this guy was using a bike we had helped him get so he could buy booze! Right then and there I thought about stealing that bike back from him. But who was I to make his life choices for him – to buy or not buy things like alcohol? This is simply the reality of the situation.
My wife has said it best; depression is the ultimate form of self-absorption. When you are homeless, it can be so depressing – especially when you feel like you are the only one affected. These men, women, and children – human beings – are just trying to survive; often times, it’s on their own. That gets lonely.
Life changes with each choice people make. The first step in helping each other comes from not trying to fix one another, but being open and understanding to the situation. We may feel grateful for contrived means, but sometimes it is the little things that will take you back. One man during a Sunday morning church service prayed out loud, “Thank God I’m sober.” The whole church was silent. It really put into perspective how far away having a roof over your head can feel when you haven’t had one for a while. The reality is about the relationships we create as human beings, not the resources.
This story originally appeared in Facing Homelessness in Fort Wayne, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Lutheran Social Services and the Office of the Mayor in Fort Wayne, Indiana.