On a daily basis, nearly two hundred men come through the front doors of the local day shelter for homeless men where I work. In addition to “our guys”, a number of staff members, volunteers, professionals from community agencies, such as Legal Aid and the Veterans Administration, and church and school groups also enter our front doors. Today was no different from any other day in that regard, but something happened that made today memorable for several reasons.
Whenever someone enters the day shelter, they are generally greeted warmly by the staff members, volunteers, and the men who come to us seeking hope and help. Overall, the men will smile, nod, or offer a greeting when they come into contact with someone, and I take pride in their overall good manners and willingness to help around the day shelter to keep it a safe, clean, and welcoming environment for everyone. This truly is their “home”.
Shortly after I arrived at work this morning, a volunteer from an outside agency was talking to a group of the men seated near my office, and he beckoned me over to them. When I approached them, this man said to me, “Will you please explain to these guys that the reason those college girls wouldn’t talk to them is because they look scary?” He said this with a smile on his face and a lilt in his voice, but one look at the men’s pained faces indicated that they did not think that this was a joking matter at all. I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I was sure of one thing; I wouldn’t and couldn’t answer in the affirmative to the question being posed to me. So, I said, “If those college girls didn’t speak to them, I am sure it is because they were too young to appreciate being in the presence of greatness, or they were overwhelmed by our guys’ dashing good looks.” With that, the men chuckled and grinned, and the man who made the comment looked a bit puzzled and walked away.
It was then that I asked the men seated before me what had transpired. Apparently, a group from a local college had come into the day shelter this morning, and when the co-eds passed by this particular group of men, the men said, “Hi” and “Good morning”, but their greetings were met with silence and averted eyes. This seemingly insignificant slight is anything but that to people who experience such reactions on a daily basis, but it stings even more when it happens in their “home”. My heart sank when one of the men said, “It hurt our feelings that they couldn’t even acknowledge us when we were just trying to be nice”, and another man added, “Miss Kristi, that’s just bad manners that they came in here and acted that way”. While I understand that this group of young women most likely felt uncomfortable in a new environment and did not mean to be rude to these men, I understood even more how our guys felt. To be invisible in plain sight is excruciatingly painful indeed.
I praised the men for being gracious hosts to the college group, and I told them that I was sorry that their feelings were hurt. One of the guys asked me if I thought that they looked scary, and his question gave me pause, as I replied with a definitive, “No; you do not look scary at all.” I surveyed the faces looking at me, and all I could see were four friends having coffee and playing spades together on a cold March morning. They were dressed neatly and casually in jeans or khaki pants, t-shirts, sweaters or sweatshirts, coats, and athletic shoes, and all four had shaved and showered. They did not look like the stereotype of men who are homeless, such as being dirty, disheveled, under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, etc. While there are such men who fit this stereotype, the vast majority of the men we serve look ‘normal’, whatever that means. They are sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, friends, employees, diamonds in the rough, etc. Quite simply, they are men, and more importantly, they are our guys.
That’s another story . . .
For more of my musings, please, visit “Just One Thing Each Day” at www.justonethingeachday.wordpress.com .
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