every day, i drive through an area called seven corners. it’s a crazy confluence of roads, each sort of crashing wildly into the next. i have tried to count how many corners are actually there; but it takes too much concentration to simultaneously count and navigate through the area, so i’ve never actually figured out just how many corners there truly are in that intersection from hell.
this summer, there are two homeless men who work the streets here. an african-american man has the strip beside eastbound route 7; a caucasian man walks the strip on an access road that feeds into both 7 and ultimately route 50. both have signs that state that they are homeless vets. they have replaced the lady who walked this street last summer; i remember her vividly because not only did we give her money for her family, but BC insisted that we find help for this lady. (i called both social services and the nearest homeless shelter; of course neither could help her. indeed, despite the fact that she was on that narrow strip of land day in and day out, they said that they could not locate the woman if they wanted to. it was a difficult lesson for BC; that agencies are not prepared to go looking for specific people, like lost pets, to bring in from the heat.)
i only drive on the access road the one man has claimed as his turf. this morning, i dug into my purse and gave the man some change; as i held it out, his rough hand gently scooped it out of mine. he blessed me; and i wished i knew more about how he ended up on this narrow plot of land in the early morning heat.
i often wonder about the stories behind each homeless person i encounter. there was a man i befriended 20 years ago who was on my walk from union station to my office. he had a teenager and was not happy about living on the streets and what that did to his relationship with his son. i would often give him some of my lunch, as i didn’t have much money to spare back then. as the months wore on, my friend started showing up with flour all over his pants and shirt. a local group was teaching him to work in a kitchen, and he was very excited about his baking classes. i cheered him on each day until one day, he was not in his usual spot. i never saw him again; and i always hope that somehow, he was able to take the skills he was learning and get back on a solid path to a life of comfort and stability.
i fear this is not usually the case, though, with the people i see on the streets.
i have seen homeless people bathing in the fountain below the Capitol building, where only hours later, throngs of tourists will stick their hands and legs to cool off in the Washington heat. i was once chased, along with a friend of mine, by a homeless man who snapped and went from friendly to threatening; he chased us all the way into the ladies room at union station until somehow, he was mercifully diverted. i often remind myself that homeless people are people like any others; most people are okay, but there will always be the liars, cheats, and people with serious problems in the world. these folks just have the added problem of no safety net to catch them and no place of their own in which to lay their heads at day’s end.
but i still wonder. i don’t know what i would do if i were in that situation. and as the economy fails, i suspect increasing numbers of people find themselves in this position. friends who have come to visit DC often ask me whether there will be any of those people near their accommodations; they want to shield their kids, or they don’t want to be bothered by panhandling, which i certainly understand. but with the economy tanking, i wonder how many of those people will be coming to towns and villages which were formerly considered havens away from our big city distresses?
because in the end, couldn’t we all be those people?