Seeing invisible people – will it mess you up?

March 16, 2010

Invisible People

“Warning: These videos will mess you up!” This caveat is on the front page of a website called Invisible People:

On the street I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of a decent meal. I became angry and said to God; “Why did you permit this? Why don’t you do something about it?” For a while God said nothing. That night he replied, quite suddenly, “I did something about it. I made you.”

I also heard a story about a homeless man on Hollywood Blvd who really thought he was invisible. But one day a kid handed the man a Christian pamphlet. The homeless guy was shocked and amazed, “what! You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”

It isn’t hard to comprehend this man’s slow spiral into invisibility. Once on the street, people started to walk past him, ignoring him as if he didn’t exist…. It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.

This filmmaker has posted a number of videos on his website, Invisible TV. The videos may not “mess you up,” but they’ll move you.


“The soloist” cuts his first CD!

February 17, 2010

Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, "The Soloist"

Steve Lopez, L.A. Times columnist and author of The Soloist, describes the making of a CD by a formerly homeless classical musician who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. What a wonderful outcome of an unlikely friendship between two extraordinary men.

Please consider choosing just one person sharing our public spaces who is socially isolated by mental illness or homelessness, and meet for coffee and conversation at a cafe once a week. Ideas about how to get started, as well as some Freestyle Volunteer stories, are tabbed above.

(At you can find my review of The Soloist – book and film.)

“Coming alongside”

February 2, 2010

At the 2010 Guiding Lights Weekend January 29-30, my group role-played engaging with someone who seems or is homeless. Cultivating a safe yet open mindset seemed especially useful for “coming alongside.” Suggestions:

  1. Sense and enjoy the life going on all around, and cultivate thankfulness for it. Doing this puts me in a mood of happily “saying yes” to the encounter.
  2. Remember personal boundaries and limits. I don’t give strangers cash, but I do offer to buy food. And I always stay in a public space. “How about I get  us some coffee at that cafe’ over there?”
  3. Detach from outcomes. I let go of any preconceptions of what will happen or should happen in the encounter. Beyond being with the other person in the moment, there’s no such thing as “success.”
  4. Imagine a safe, welcoming space to contain two people: I’ve already drawn a safe boundary circle around myself (see #2). Now I imagine drawing a loose, welcoming circle around me and the other person. Within it we can stand restfully, sit down on a nearby bench, go to a café, or walk along side by side. (Of course, the other guy may not want to engage, in which case I simply say goodbye.)
  5. Remember that one is a guest in the other person’s world. Accordingly, I treat the other with dignity and respect. I have no need or desire to change him or her; I want just to experience the moment together. Maybe only I will change.
  6. Stand “side by side” with the other person. Face-to-face companionship may feel uncomfortable to the other, slightly threatening, or too much like what police and bureaucrats do. Harborview Medical Center Mental Health Chaplain Craig Rennebohm teaches the importance of being “side by side.” Gentle eye contact is also important.
  7. Notice the life going on all around, and share observations as it feels natural to do so. Silence is golden, too.
  8. Cultivate a sense of wonder about the other person. Psychiatrist Alfred Margulies says, “A sense of wonder keeps us from behaving as if we have other people figured out.” It also keeps me from falling into pity, which will separate me from the other person. A sense of wonder doesn’t mean asking lots of questions. I accept what the other person has to offer, even if it’s silence.
  9. Listen and hear. My companion should feel that I value the words that are spoken as well as the speaker. Bill Block, Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, helped me realize that I don’t have to agree (or necessarily even to believe) in order to hear. When I say “I hear you” even to things that are troubling or that call for action, this openness to the other does not commit me to act in any particular way.
  10. Cultivate a sense of mutuality. I help my companion feel that contact is important to me personally by inviting a later connection and offering a choice. “How about I buy us a cup of coffee next week? When and where would you like to meet?”

“Depressed? Snap out of it!”

January 17, 2010

Clinical depression won’t let you just “Get over it.” Still, that’s the chipper advice many depressed individuals receive from people who don’t understand this mental illness. The Callaghans video is part of the BringChange2Mind series, teaching Americans about the presence of mental illness in individuals all around us, and about what mental illness is actually like.

The series provides an important counterweight to the sensationalized media stories we read about a tiny percentage of people with brain disorders who act out in antisocial ways. Most people suffering from these illnesses stay quietly under the radar – good citizens but often isolated.  BringChange2Mind draws them back into the human circle and lets us learn from them.

The Callahans

“I look them in the eye and speak with them.”

January 6, 2010

A reader writes from a distant city:

My church seems to attract a fair number of, shall we say, eccentric folks. There’s a guy who wanders in and out during Mass. He talks to himself and anyone who will listen. I have no idea what he’s saying most of the time, but it’s an easy thing to listen and nod. It makes him smile and I feel better than I would if I looked the other way.

eyesMy homeless “friends” usually congregate in our riverfront park at night. They sleep in the shelter and look after each other and their stuff and sometimes ask a passerby for a cigarette. Mostly they go unnoticed. I always look them in the eye and speak with them. It’s another thing that costs nothing and lets them feel good about themselves. Last summer the riverfront was off-limits. After two floods, the whole area was cordoned off and didn’t get cleaned up until nearly September, and then it was too cold for them to hang out there. I miss them but I’d be really happy if no one has to sleep there this summer.

At a recent meeting on homelessness in Seattle a well-traveled woman observed that people in nations she visits are more likely than Americans to engage with strangers. “Americans don’t say hello,” she said. My experience abroad has been similar. Why, then, do we Americans consider ourselves an especially friendly, welcoming people? True, with some notable exceptions we’re more accepting of cultural and racial diversity than are many other societies – a virtue, even in cases where what we accept can be pretty much limited to the abstraction.

Anyway, I like to greet people on the streets of my city as though it’s a village and we all know each other even though we’re not all on a first-name basis yet.

Background about Freestyle Volunteering is in A little about me. More Freestyle Volunteer stories are at Get Started, tabbed above.

Wonder what homeless days are like?

December 28, 2009

figure brick wallA reader writes:

Ever want to understand what a homeless person endures? Dress up like a transient and walk around downtown Seattle. People go out of their way to avoid you. Women clutch onto their purses as you walk by. Street thugs hassle you. You get treated like a dog. You feel as if you could be a victim of violence at any given moment. Not to mention the obvious of being hungry, cold, lonely etc. Could you imagine living like this for several months, years or a lifetime?

People that are kind to the homeless are found in the strangest places. The young kid that makes peanuts flipping burgers at Dick’s (Broadway) or the grocery clerk at Safeway (U-District). But mostly, the people that look out for homeless are other homeless or formerly homeless people.

It’s hard to understand the plight of the homeless until “you’ve walked a mile in his shoes”.

Please consider choosing one person who shares our public spaces but is roped off from mainstream life by homelessness, and meet in a cafe weekly for coffee and conversation. Ways to get started are tabbed above. Thanks!

Is being homeless their fault?

December 17, 2009

A reader writes:

Here are some common misconceptions about homeless people:

  1. They brought the situation on themselves.
  2. They are all criminals, mentally ill, or lazy and unwilling to work

The reality is that while some homeless people have made bad choices that led to homelessness, it is only one of many causes for their situation. Often it is simply that circumstances thrust them into this state through no fault of their own.

While there are some people in life who are unwilling or unable to work, it can be incredibly difficult for a homeless person to get any kind of job. There is no way to contact them, they often lack appropriate clothing or facilities where they can to groom themselves properly, and once someone finds out the applicant is homeless their prejudices kick in and they will not hire them simply because they are homeless.

People are afraid to interact with anyone who appears homeless – fear being a huge barrier to communication. But f you get to know a homeless person, it brings an awareness that there is a very fine line separating a homeless person from yourself. We use avoidance to deny it could happen to us. Like some other people, if a homeless person says they are hungry I will buy them food from a restaurant or a grocery store. I will give them personal care items such as shampoo, deodorant, etc. I also offer information about shelters, free medical clinics, etc. Courtesy, kindness, and acceptance are qualities which cost you nothing but mean a great deal to the homeless person who quickly finds that being treated as if they are invisible is a chronic state.

Please consider choosing one person sharing our public spaces who is socially isolated by homelessness, and meeting for coffee once a week. Ideas about how to volunteer in this way are tabbed above.  My article about a program that leads to employment for street kids is at Crosscut.