The other night I couldn’t sleep.
This is rare for me as I am a good sleeper. I go to bed directly after I kiss my children good night. I want to read. I drift off many nights before ten o’clock. But Saturday night I kept waking up feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Additionally I felt anxious about something that I could not name. This happens to me sometimes. My asthma acts up from years of smoking. It was never the less keeping me awake.
As noxious thoughts began to swell and demand attention, circling like buzzards above me, I finally threw back the covers in frustration. I got up.
I don’t do the middle of the night very well.
Sleepers generally don’t I think as we are not used to how different it is being awake in the middle of the night. I was aware of all the fears I managed to push away which tend to take over during the nocturnal hours.
Gone is rationality. Gone is perspective and patience.
And so, I found myself awake, breathing with difficulty at three in the morning and I finally decided to get up.
Creeping down the stairs and into the kitchen, I was going to use my inhaler and then write. I find writing is the best way for me to sort out what is bothering me.
There were people in my living room!
I was shocked, though it is not as if it was totally unlikely. Molly is often coming in from work or being out and it is usually in the hours long past midnight. But she was sitting there idly chatting with our two guests at three in the morning. They looked at me like I was crazy (for being up) and I looked at them the same way. I quickly high tailed it out of there! As I scuttled back to bed, pissed off and feeling as if I had done something wrong, I recalled the two young people who had slept in our basement off and on for the last week or so.
When we returned from Seattle, we found out that friends of Molly were “homeless” and living in their car. They had stayed a few nights in our basement while we were away, but had cleared out when we returned. So I invited them back again.
For months, years, I have tried to resolve where to step in to the tragedy of the homeless here in Madison.
I want to do something. I want to be intelligent and compassionate about it. We all do the various things like offer a ride or or give money to the person with a sign outside the mall. Bring a bag of food when our church asks. But those are band aids (and some would say giving money to transients is wrong. In Madison it is considered breaking the law).
But I want to help real people advance in their life situation.
And so, it was easy to take these two people in and allow them to sleep on our futon in the basement and eat a few meals. When I pursued their situation further, it turns out they are “intentionally without a home, off the grid, dependent on no-one.” Okay, I think. Why not? We had no idea what their short and long-term plans were. One more night quickly turned into a week, more…
We have so much.
As the week progressed, it became less convenient to have them in the basement where Tom’s studio is and where we have and do our laundry. Dare I say inconvenient? And we soon learned that our guests slept until two in the afternoon and stayed up all night, as I discovered when I wanted to use my computer in the middle of the night.
One day, as Tom and I cleaned toilets, washed dishes and laundry, they woke up late and laid about on the back porch. What had begun as an easy kindness had quickly become something else. Something you hate to think, much less say out loud to one another in whispered annoyance.
I caught myself thinking “they’re just freeloaders.” To be sure, by the end of the week, if they had not made their intentions clear to us we were going to ask, to clarify how long they would need our help.
I woke this morning to a note. They are moving on — going to live with his parents for a while in Cleveland, work and pay off debt. And though they were polite, and picked up after themselves, and were extremely appreciative, I was kind of relieved to see them go.
Generosity is quickly complicated when it involves real people.
And all too quickly I saw how small my heart is. I felt willing to be generous as long as it didn’t infringe too much on my comforts and needs, my daily schedule or priorities. I have to keep asking what’s next for us? I let them stay with us because I wanted to “do something” for the homelessness. They were just two people, fairly affluent with a car, cell phones, a laptop and other luxuries but they have no home. I was surprised to learn that only 18% of the homeless are chronically homeless. Perhaps more people on the street are like them? I don’t know.
Generosity — yes it’s complicated.
Understanding homelessness requires a grasp of several social issues: poverty, affordable housing, disabilities, and others.
Having these kids living in our basement brought up all sorts of complicated feelings and thoughts. Why aren’t they working? And yet how can I not share the warmth and shelter that we are blessed with?
In a letter to our mayor Paul Soglin’s assistant, Brenda Konkel recently wrote:
Over the years a great many who live homeless in Madison have found daily shelter in either the basement of the State Capitol, or the Public Library on W. MIfflin St. As it currently stands soon neither will be available. Word from the State is that there are no plans to reopen the basement of the State Capitol to the public, and the downtown Public Library at its current location on Mifflin will close in October for approximately two years. The library’s temporary location will offer very limit seating and space.
The consequence of these two factors is to cast out many of our neighbors to the dangers and sufferings of winter.
This will be a grave time in Madison especially downtown if the people of our city do not take note. What is being done? What needs to be done?
Luke 3:11. And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”
It’s a heavy thing all this knowledge–the question is what do we do with our knowledge and our power? Do we have open generous hearts. Are we willing to have our lives disrupted and changed by others who are less fortunate than we?
Selah. Yes, stop and listen. No answers today, just hard questions.
PS I did not take a photo of our guests. This photograph was taken downtown Madison of a homeless woman.