I walked down a set of steps and across a worn red carpet that led to the homes of strangers. As I approached, I saw welcoming knick-knacks and decorations that created the picture of a happy home. I was greeted by an older woman who had a big smile and a certain warmth about her that made me feel right at home. Hidden among trees and brush next to the White River, I was standing in the middle of the woods.
A few weeks ago I set out on an afternoon outreach mission with Bob Charlock from Food 4 Souls Ministry. His daily agenda consists mostly of visiting homeless camps in Indy and offering a hand to those in need. The idea is not to stop by and say "Hey, come with me, let's go to a shelter and find you a job, and do all the things I think you need to do to get out of here!" I've learned that it just doesn't work that way. The purpose is to meet people where they are and allow them to set their own goals while being supportive in the process.
It's hard to imagine how or why men and women end up living under bridges or in homeless camps. Job loss (number one cause of homelessness), mental illness, chronic illness, and addictions are all components of homelessness. I'm sure everyone can think of people in their lives who are not homeless living with one or more of these conditions. What is the difference? Support.
During this experience I learned something really important: our neighbors living in homeless camps or under a bridge are a community. When I connected with the lady in the woods who had such a bright and kind smile, she warmed up to me immediately. We chatted about normal things like her love of her pet, the weather, and how her job was going. She really wasn't all that different from me-- she just doesn't have a roof over her head. Homeless camps have created a network of support for those living in them that keeps them from becoming isolated. Humans need to have contact with other humans, and isolation can be detrimental--downright damaging-- to our well-being.
The faces of homelessness aren't always what they seem. I met former executives, people with college degrees, talent, skills, and faith. Some are in recovery, and the only barrier between them and housing is employment. It was important for me to learn and share that people facing homelessness aren't that different from those of us fortunate enough to have housing. I know I would not be where I am today without all of the support I have received over the years from my family and friends. Where would you be?
Leila Mortazavi is a social work intern with Trusted Mentors. Bob Charlock works with Food4Souls, one of our partnering agencies. For more info or to become a mentor for the formerly homeless or incarcerated, check out our website at www.trustedmentors.org.