Visibly Invisible OR Invisibly Visible: A Homeless Predicament.
Brian and I were meeting and discussing a few homeless people we work with. Our focus turned to a couple of fellas who had recently been incarcerated, in particular, a 50 year old veteran friend who we had just assisted to get housed. We grieved over his plight! We questioned how veterans can faithfully serve this country, only to end up homeless, incarcerated, ignored, dejected and struggling with too many vices. We mourned over how our buddy Dre mirrored this reality. His plight didn't just cause us to grieve, but also sent a rumbling of anger through both of us and a shiver of hopelessness in the system that seems too big and powerful to care or even dent. Another sad reality is, Dre's story is not unique, but a story that is all too regular amongst the homeless population. As we sat there, we could both recall the desperation, the tears, the struggle and the endurance of this man. Dre had fought a battle, he had won, he had got a place to call his own, only to lose it within two months.
As Brian was chatting away, he called Dre and all the others mentioned in our discussion; "visible". His choice of words took me by surprise, as I would normally consider our homeless friends "invisible". The concept fascinated us, because even though our thoughts on homelessness, incarceration and racial discrimination are almost identical, we used opposite words to describe Dre's dilemma. It got us thinking: maybe, just maybe, the majority of homeless folk are both visible and invisible!
Dre's story is the reality of many homeless people. They may be not be a veteran, or around 50, or black, or an alcoholic, or suffer with PTSD and other related mental illnesses Dre struggles with; yet, it's important to note, that each and every person has their own personality and complicated story to tell, and they all, by virtue of their homeless plight, sadly become "visibly invisible" or "invisibly visible". It is a cross they must bear, daily!
Now, to make myself clear, Dre's life hasn't been a picture of rainbows, flowers and peaceful tranquility who was wrongly and unjustly attained. I would consider him a wonderfully caring man, who has his struggles, heightened by a debilitating mental illness, triggered by a war, and admittedly, his woes only increase after he has slurped back a few "cold ones". It was at a point of drunken stupidity, Dre ended up being cuffed by the Chicago Police Department and locked up in a horrible little cell. In all honesty, Dre committed a crime that many people do, but most of them never see the back of a squad car, let alone suffer the fate of being incarcerated in a penitentiary, located hundreds of miles away in downstate Illinois. Now unfortunately, we're unable to see our friend until the end of this year, and he'll be on parole and homeless again!
"Dre; SO invisible, yet SO visible. Dre; what did you do to deserve such a fate?"
The reality is, most people who read my blog experience a very different fate. Most people's visibility is positive, compared to the negative visibility homeless people normally face. When the police walk the beat or cruise on by in their SUVs, we want to be ignored and invisible to them, we don't want to be frisked and searched for no apparent reason. We don't want to be talked about negatively at meetings by a bunch of unknown rich folk who think they hold our destiny in their hands. We don't want our names scattered all over the internet by neighbors who consider us scum and refuse to shake our hands or even smile in our direction. We don't want to be living "rent-free" in a bunch of people's heads, as they analyze and scrutinize our every move in public. We don't want people constantly pointing their fingers at us, calling the police as we stand on the corner and determining what's best for us, by people who can't even glance in our direction, or acknowledge our existence. We don't want others constantly mocking us, looking down at us and judging us. We don't want all that, but many people in this neighborhood suffer this reality. What we do want is people to know our names and see us for who we are.
Yet, as homeless people suffer the dire consequences of this negative visibility, they are also doomed with crippling invisibility. Everywhere they go, they feel ignored and forgotten. Just wander the streets with me for an hour and you'll see the pain and devastation on the faces experiencing invisibility; they are simply people trying to get the things they need, but everywhere they go, it's as if they are non-existent. Some apply for hundreds of jobs, but they never hear back from one. Some tirelessly search for housing, but doors never seem to open. Some seek eligible benefits, but the procedure seems to take an eternity, with multiple rejections. I could easily go on about how hard it is for them to get medicine, doctors appointments or see a psychiatrist. It is just as difficult to get appropriate substance abuse treatment, get on SSI, apply for Veterans benefits or enroll in appropriate programs. These men and women face the daily reality of being invisible; they unfortunately are left to wander the streets, as if ghosts, surrounded in a city occupied by millions.
In all this, I have failed to mention another horrifying reality of invisibility; without getting into all the reasons, far too many of these men and women have been totally rejected by their families. All safety nets have disappeared in their lives, they have been left, completely and utterly alone.
George is invisible by the fact he sleeps outside and has been unable to get employment for years. He's attempted many avenues, but he feels no-one ever sees him, so he never gets that chance. Unable to earn a dollar, he resorts to his own means by selling cigarettes on the corner of Wilson and Broadway. All day, every day, George loiters in his usual spot selling "squares" to the public; Truman College students and the frequent cars that stop to get their nicotine fix. George is invisibly visible, as he is seen as a scourge in the Uptown neighborhood. His mere presence disgusts groups of people, who take pleasure in calling 911. George continues to hang in this prime "square selling location", but he frequently rotates in and out of Cook County Jail when the police decide to pick him up for this misdemeanor.
As I ponder what these men go through, it makes me weep. The only difference between the homeless and housed, is the fact they don't have money or their own home, so their lives are visible to all, yet ignored and forgotten by most.
All this makes me think of how Jesus brought a new Kingdom to earth, which elevated the invisible and made them visible. He gave the invisible men and women of his day a positive visibility, even when the arrogant elitist religious leaders scorned the "invisible" with a negative visibility. The woman who'd been bleeding for twelve years, the man born blind, the adulterous woman at the well and the poor widow who put a mere mite into the money box are just 4 of the many times Jesus chose not to ignore the invisible person needing to be loved. Jesus responded to the woman who touched his garment and expected to fade away, by asking who touched him and she experienced more than just physical healing that day. Jesus responded to the hollering blind man who sat at the side of the road, by healing this aggravating beggar who the masses had decided to wander past and ignore. This act of love caused a major controversy. The woman at the well was just expecting to get herself some water, she went at a time of the day when no-one would notice or care, but Jesus was there and they had a long discussion, which was a revolutionary act in those days. She found someone who cared, she also found freedom, love and faith that day when the rest of her township preferred that she'd "fade to black". Jesus pointed toward and observed the humble widow who placed a lousy pittance in the moneybox. He told the crowd that surrounded him that she is someone who we should aspire to copy, because she gave what she had. Jesus' parables sung a similar tune, he elevated and made visible those who are invisible by giving them seats in His Kingdom, special places at the banquet and he sent his servants into the highways and by-ways to find those who'd been left out and rejected. Jesus never ever forgot the invisible people and neither should we.
Within our communities, we need to notice our invisible people and slather them with as much positive visibility as we can. We do this with compassionate love, heaps of perseverance and a lot of courage; that is the only way the paralyzed man's 4 helpers managed to get him in to see Jesus. We need to imitate these 4 fellas, because they can be our examples of how we need to be there for all the invisible folk that surround us; like Dre, George and the other people I mentioned above. Our journey with Dre was a long complicated one; a journey where we tried to give him a positive visibility; we assisted him with getting his apartment, a refrigerator, bus cards, frequent reminders, shoulders to cry on and someone to pray with. We did what we could do, but unfortunately, we're unable to change the system and free him from society's negative visibility, a society that has thrown him in the slammer! But we will continue to do what we can. We will continue to be his friend. We will continue to be salt and light. We will continue to make every effort to bring God's Kingdom to Uptown. We will continue to creatively make him visible. We will continue to uplift our invisible friends in prayer.
And when Dre is released on parole later this year, we'll continually try to "set this prisoner free".
Update March 2013: YAY! Dre has been released from prison, has been reconnected with services and is successfully housed in his own apartment! Congratulations Dre!