Outside the Temple Gate (Gift Cards #33-36)

Trip Start Jan 06, 2011
Trip End May 24, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Utah
Sunday, February 6, 2011

While touring the sights of Salt Lake City, Michael and I came upon a sight that most people avoid.  Under the North gate to Temple Square, amidst the religious leaving their gathering at the Tabernacle, and the tourists snapping cameras at bronze statues, Heather(1) stood with a cardboard sign, "Homeless, sleeping on the street, hungry, please help.  God Bless." 

While Michael ran back to the van to get some gift cards, I sat back to watch.  I watched as men and women in suits and dresses, Bibles in hand, diverted their gazes, crossed to the opposite side walk and made wide arches around the spot that Heather had claimed. 

Finally, I walked right up to her, introduced myself and asked her to tell me her story.  "It's long," she warned.  "I've got time," I assured her.

I learned that after growing up in Dayton, OH, Heather and 2 friends decided to go see what else there was outside their hometown.  They got as far as Salt Lake City, worked odd jobs, ran out of money, and wound up homeless.  One friend is still with her, Jeff.  She's stayed in the shelter some nights, but she says it's packed.  Plus, they'll first take care of the homeless familes, elderly, and sick, leaving the single adults on the end of the receiving line - most nights there isn't room for them anyway.  So she sleeps on the street. 

What struck us about Heather was not her story - it's a common one on the street - it was her attitude, and willingness to share with us.

I learned a lot from our conversation with her.  First of all, she put yet another human face to the problem of homelessness.  She talked about how it hurts to be ignored.  We often think that we go unnoticed as we refuse to notice people on the street.  But she sees it.  She sees the dehumanization of the poor, feels it first hand, and she says "it hurts" to get treated "like mush."  Her bright blue eyes watered, but she blinked back any tears that may have come.  "It's life!  But I do wonder if we all just took care of each other, it'd look a lot more like heaven down here."

I asked why she thought so many people avoided her and other homeless people they may see.  "They're scared, I think." When I asked why, she explained, "I'm not saying all homeless people are nice.  I know they're not." (She'd recently had all of her identification stolen by another homeless person) "But I think people might find that one 'bad apple' to use that expression.  They meet one mean homeless person and assume we're all like that."  She shrugged and added this insight, "But, we do the same thing.  I was talking to Jeff last night about this.  We look at people walking around us and think they're all snobs, or they're all rude.  But not all rich people are mean.  We're wrong about that, too."

Heather was very willing to talk about the pain of homelessness, and how she'd like to see more people help.  But she wasn't one to sit and complain.  She practiced what she preached.  Someone had recently given her a bunch of hand and foot warmers.  These wouldn't last all winter, and she'd be justified in keeping them all to herself.  But, she knew of a man who sleeps outside and he has a mental illness.  She went and found him and gave him some of the warmers.  She showed him how to use them, and she said his smile and look of surprise made her day.  "You just give what you're able to give, I think," she smiled.

If Heather were to come into "some healthy money", she said she'd take it to the dollar store and buy a bunch of supplies to take out to the street and hand out face-to-face.  She wouldn't give to an organization, she'd want to know that people in need got help.  From her perspective, after you pay the man in charge, the people answering phones, then take care of the homeless children, elderly and sick, there just isn't anything that trickles down to the single adults like her.

I ask, if she was willing to give away her hand warmers to someone else on the street, why can't we, who have so much, afford to give some time, maybe a few bucks to help humanize someone on the street?  See, once you put a face to a problem such as homelessness, it's not so scary, and it's not so easy to walk by on the other side of the street.

PS. We couldn't have such a potent conversation with Heather and not help her out. We gave her 2 Walmart cards and 2 Subway cards. We said she could keep them and use them, or if she saw another need and wanted to help someone out, she can feel free to give them. We also equipped her with a Bible for her reference to some Biblical matters we discussed.

(1) We told her that we're writing about our encounters with homelessness, and asked if we could quote her. "We'll change your name if you want." She hesitated for a moment, then replied, "Well I've always wanted to have the name Heather." Deal.
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