This past week I met some of our neighbors.
There’s Michael, a college graduate in English literature who uses phrases such as “sorry if I’m being obtuse,” and “oops, that was a Freudian slip.” He likes to wear his black beret with his denim shirt. As he walks around the area surrounding his shelter, he isn’t afraid to recount how his heroin addiction led to the loss of his family and job. He tends to repeat himself, but his eyes dance when he talks about seeing his son again and getting his screenplay made into a movie.
There’s Andy, a native Scotsman, living out his retirement from careers ranging from ophthalmologist to insurance agent. He has somewhat of a dirty mind, but he’ll wake up three hours early just to make sure the people eating at his soup kitchen have some good stew on a cold morning. He likes wearing a purple knit hat that his friend Debbie made for him.
And there’s Olaf, who also lives in a shelter. He’s a graduate from Wabash University and majored in math before a mental illness took over his life. At first glance his long hair and fingernails might throw you for a loop, but the second you see his blue eyes light up all your fears disappear. He likes to talk about all the math classes he took and about his dream to be a political theorist. He’s more up-to-date about current events than probably anyone you’ll ever meet.
All of these men live and interact in downtown Denver. They all wake up everyday and continue about their business whether or not anyone bothers to pay attention to them – most of the time people don’t.
The point is, though, these people are there. They live in our cities, some of them content, some of them aspiring for something greater, but each one a separate individual who wakes up each day and lives in spite of our blindness to them.
There are everyday heroes who simply see a need in society and work to solve it. There are people recovering from their past and hoping for a different future. And there are people who are simply trapped, yet manage to show compassion despite their frustrations.
The truth is that I had never had an extended conversation with a homeless person before. I’ve never had the opportunity to witness their humanity until this past week and I didn’t know how much of a difference you could make by waking up early one day a week to make stew on a cold day.
We worry about events in far-off lands, we aspire for that great job, the 2.5 children and the three-story house with a white picket fence. But how often do we recognize these amazing neighbors with ambitions and desires so much like ours?
These neighbors don’t need our pity because they’re not pitiful. What they need is our recognition that they are here, living with us in our community. We are all inhabiting this small amount of space and we need to recognize the challenges that exist right where we live. These men are our neighbors and they live with us as proof of our community’s greatest failures and, sometimes, accomplishments.
Until we recognize all the people in our community, we’ll never be able to fix anything.
Maria Sanchez-Traynor is a senior majoring in English and journalism.