Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Running and the Homeless

After suffering through a pretty deep bone bruise from misuse of my new awesome shoes (only to be used on non-paved surfaces from now on), I'm back to running on treadmills during days when the conditions are icy, snowy, or the temperature is below 30 deg F. I run in one of our city's indoor athletic centers, usually in the afternoons, but sometimes in the mornings. The facilities that the city provides for its population are excellent, with treadmills, elipticals, stationary bikes, serious weight rooms, gyms, pools, and racquetball courts. All are free except for the pools. The locker rooms are cleaner than those found in many athletic clubs I've visited around the country, with good showers, ample storage, and clean floors (I hate walking through hair or unidentifiable detritus in public showers - it really grosses me out).

At the main center where I work out, on many days I have somewhere to be once I've concluded my run. So I use the showers. Since the building is located near a homeless shelter, many times I find myself sharing the locker room with members of our homeless community. For anyone who's image of the homeless is of a dirty, alcohol-soaked bum, that has not been my experience with the people I've come across in the course of my use of the Community Building. The people I see are uniformly clean and, in some cases, fastidious about their appearance.

The first time I began to notice the homeless came after repeatedly seeing a guy enter the building, but not doing a workout. He looks to be about 19 or 20, and I see him every time I run on the treadmill. He comes in carrying a plastic bag of clothing and toiletries, goes into the locker room where he remains for about 40 minutes, and then comes out clean. This routine, I'm assuming, happens every day, because I think I have seen him every time I've been there. But for the plastic bag, and his lack of use of the rest of the facility (only the showers, lockers and sinks), I don't think I would ever have guessed that he was homeless. I have never seen him talk to anyone while he's in the building. He tries not to make eye contact or interact with others around him. He seems to be totally alone. Yet somehow, each day, he works to maintain a routine that keeps himself looking as good as possible and must give him a sense of quiet dignity. I actually find my heart breaking when I think about him, because it must be very hard being that age and facing the difficulties that confront him each day.

After taking note of the young homeless guy, I started to notice others. There are plenty of young and middle-aged men (curiously though, very few who look to be over 55) who have much the same daily routine. Some are friendly, while others keep to themselves. Every now and then, like yesterday, I find myself toweling off across the narrow room from someone who is having a highly-motivated conversation with himself. In this particular instance (yesterday), the guy looked so 'normal' while conversing into the air that I had assumed he was using Bluetooth. It was only after several minutes that I realized there was no mobile device involved. I didn't feel threatened, but again, just sad that here was a person who has obvious issues, who's probably alone, and yet even in his troubled state, he's at least trying (and succeeding) to look good and stay clean and healthy.

If this blog entry sounds weird, it really is for me too. I lived in San Francisco in the early 90's, and still regularly travel to cities with large homeless populations across the US. I also have lived in or visited Asia, Europe, Central and South America - places where there are large immigrant or indigenous poor populations. In San Francisco (a city I love) and other metropolitan locations in the US, I will confess to being very uncomfortable around homeless persons. I have been yelled at, followed down streets by people asking for money, had a crazy lady try to burn me with a cigarette, and had a very scary incident on a bus involving a deranged man with a meat tenderizer. I will confess that homeless people, in general, scare me. Thanks to Reagan and his ilk, many people who should be institutionalized or getting some kind of assistance, have found themselves thrown onto the streets to face the elements without any kind of treatment or safety net. It is not uncommon to run into people who are obviously a danger to themselves or others as I walk through major US cities. So. like many people in the US, my perception of the homeless was always based on what I had seen on the streets, and had involved some of the worst examples of that population.

But having a behind-the-scenes view into the daily struggles and toils that other segments of our homeless citizens go through has challenged my thinking on the issue. I see people working hard to try to 'fit in,' and look like 'normal' Americans. Something as basic as taking a shower or doing laundry serves as a point of connection between them and everyone else with permanent shelter. And, in light of the recent economic problems, there are more and more people who are joining the ranks of those with no set place to live. People who have recently come from a stable environment (no matter how fragile the foundation), must crave normalcy, and embrace it anywhere they can find it.

I've spent the past several weeks thinking of things I can do to help. I don't think walking up to someone and handing out cash is the way to move forward. In the case of the people who use the Community Building for hygiene, I believe that directly offering money would embarrass them and rob them of their dignity. I do, however, plan to bring some nice gym bags to each workout. And if I see someone using a plastic bag, I'll offer one of mine. It seems that would allow for a conversation like - "Hey, I see you don't have a gym bag. I have an extra one with me that I'm not using. If you'd like it, its yours." The type of conversation that just acknowledges someone as a person who might have use for something, rather than a person looking for a handout, seems to me to be a better way to go.

I also am sending a donation to the homeless shelter. I checked it out on line, and the conditions there are pretty grim. On any given night, the shelter has 75 + people sleeping side by side on mats on the floor of their basement. It is not a large basement, and it looks pretty cramped. With flu and cold season upon us, it also is probably an easy way for a person to catch a bug from someone else in the room. Knowing that has given me a new respect for the people who come into the Community Building to groom. I can't imagine having to sleep in those conditions each night, waking each morning to a world with decreased opportunities, and having to fill the daylight hours with no real friends and no place to call your own.

An unforeseen consequence to my habit of running has been to have my eyes really opened on the issue of homelessness in my city. I am not an expert, nor even particularly an advocate about the issue. I still bring, I'm sure, misconceptions and long-hardened prejudices to the table when thinking about the issue. Running, however, has brought me face to face with real people suffering real consequences of homelessness. And I plan to do more to help them in the future.

If you want to donate to a good shelter, please think about using this link, and then click on donate - http://www.lawrenceshelter.org/

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