I have a tendency of including a meme in any new blog post, which provides a key note to what I am about to write and hopefully entice Facebook users and the like to read what I have written. The meme that follows fits the bill and is what my barber concluded after recounting a story while cutting my hair yesterday – you cannot judge a book by its cover. A few days previously a homeless man he knew walked into his shop. Two of his customers feared he was a “wrong ‘un” and about to kick off. Instead the man gave the barber a small gift (out of gratitude), exchanged a few pleasantries and went on his way. But today, it is buy one get one free. The second meme is about something I regard as important when dealing with anyone, especially the homeless – showing respect. In a strange, unplanned way the two memes have a common message – not to judge people.
During the past week an exchange took place on a triviality yet with an underlying important message. A couple who were staying at one of the church winter night shelters, a program which I participate in, complained they were not allowed to sleep together and kicked up a fuss. The reason was simple, that church only had facilities for men only and woman only. A couple of days earlier, the same couple stayed at my shelter and I allowed them as a favour to sleep next to each other, because I could arrange things given our set-up does enable this. I made the point to my fellow managers that if people stay in our homes as guests it is not unreasonable to expect them to adopt some simple house rules. so why not in our shelters? The option if unwilling to do this is obvious. It seems to me what we are asking for is respect. Yet respect needs to work both ways. Over the years, working among the homeless, I have come to learn most appreciate and respond to being treated respectfully. It doesn’t mean there aren’t misunderstandings or disagreements, often accentuated if under the influence of alcohol, but recognizing the homeless person is an honoured guest, including not patronizing even when reading the riot act, is important for a positive and productive relationship. My bottom line as a night shelter manager is to do what we can to make guests comfortable and meet their needs, and while not looking for thanks and gratitude expect in return they follow the house rules and show respect, mindful that with some who do not even respect themselves that may be difficult.
Over the years I have had too many to count exchanges with homeless folk. While it is impossible to generalize, because like the general population those who are homeless represent all facets, I have noted certain things more prevalent among those who are homeless than those who are not. I think, because a homeless person has often been brought low and made to feel like the scourge of society they often show insight into societal behavior and human nature that I have found generally instructive. While homeless folk can be infuriating when it comes to doing the wrong thing, I have also seen many acts of kindness and nobility. I smile when I think of one guest who had been banned for fighting but we wanted to let him in because he was respectful and it was raining. Sensing the in charge for the evening, who was not a believer, needed to be encouraged, he prayed a prayer of blessing before turning in. Some have surprised me as to how aware they are of what is going on in the world and how cultured they are. I recall having a discussion with one who lived in a church graveyard about the eighteenth century revivalist, George Whitefield, and with another who could often found under the railway bridge in the High Street discussing Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World”, and yet another who visited our shelter for a time on various Shakespeare plays and poetry, and the insights these gave on life in our own time.
So it is back to books and covers and showing respect, two important lessons when dealing with the homeless. It is an honour to be allowed into the lives of those who, more often than not due to circumstances beyond their control, find themselves homeless. If appreciation is expressed, and it often is, for my taking an interest, asking what they can do to repay, my response usually is, showing kindness and respect to others down on their luck is a good thing.