By: Edgar Bazan, Mayor’s Star Council Class of 2016-2017.
I am not that! Have you ever been in a position when you had to address incorrect assumptions that someone has made about you? A position in which you realized people were assigning labels, value, and character to you without even knowing you, not even your name much less your story? And by mischaracterizing you, you were objectified, labeled as that, stripped away from worth and identity. Perhaps you can recall a few instances when you were in such position, misjudged, and needed to clarify who you actually are. And you did, and you moved on. However, for many this is not possible, and it is not an isolated event either, but a daily reality that forces them to live in the shadows, in “hobo camps,” on the streets or under a bridge, hidden from sight--too much shame, too much pain to be parading.
This is a reality that should hurt deep within our hearts, to have people around us in such precarious and hopeless conditions: people without a home. I choose to say “people without a home” intentionally because the word homelessness is so impersonal that it fails to communicate effectively that it is in fact about people and not objects, or, about labeling someone as that.
I have never been without a home, I would never dare to insinuate that I know how it is or how it feels, but I heard enough to know that when people are without a home they are labeled: lazy, criminal, sick, dirty, crazy; in short, a threat. Homelessness is not a synonym of crime or any of these just mentioned above, but a broken reality for people that are struggling to survive with nothing, and even against the rejection of society. A reality in which people without a home are continually saying, thinking, yelling in so many different ways, with so many different words: I am not that!
Where do we begin to address this challenge? Any place is as good as any other, the question is not where we begin, but where would we be going once we get started. One of the very first things we can learn to do is to open our eyes and ears so we can learn. Just in the city of Dallas, there has been a 21% increase in the homeless population from 2015 to 2016, with a 64% having mental health problems, brain injury, or physical disability. The great majority are men (78%) with an average age of 47 years old.
These statistics represent people, and they have been around us for so long that have become invisible objects. Should we feed them, provide housing and money? Yes, and yes. Whatever works. However, if that is the solution, then how is it different from objectification? The most basic need of human beings is other human beings. As people, we are a social community originally designed for each other. When someone is without a home, no matter how much money or square feet in a house he or she has, without family and friends, there is no intrinsic value in it. We may feel overwhelmed and powerless with this challenge, or perhaps transfer the responsibility to someone else, but if this is our city, it is our responsibility, for even if people are without a home, they are still our neighbors.
What follows learning is engaging with others, having a relationship. One of the simplest yet powerful things to do in this regard is to learn the names of people because relationships begin by asking their name. Names matter in relationships because they give us identity, even a sense of belonging to and with others. No name is the same, for every person behind a name represents a unique story. It is not about the spelling but the story behind the name that matters. Tragically, many people with a name go unnamed because we avoid them, never calling them by name, but labeled them as that.
However, let’s not romanticize homelessness, people without a home, because suffering is not an ideal, but a cause of so much pain that disfigures the personality leading to pathological distress and disorders. It is not easy or something that can be accomplished just by forcing the will. To bring healing to this challenge, we need a responsible, consistent and sustainable effort. There are good and very capable people in our city that work every day to learn the names, offer relationships and provide for the needs of people without a home. Such is the case in Dallas, Texas with CitySquare.
CitySquare is a non-profit, human and community development corporation in Dallas, Texas that provides food, health, housing and outreach services to the poor. The Mayor’s Star Council recently visited CitySquare, hosting a panel (Philip Kingston, Dallas City Councilmember, District 14; Edd Eason, Assistant Vice President of Health and Housing, City Square; Kourtny Garrett, President, Downtown Dallas, Inc.; Ron Hall, Author, Same Kind Of Different As Me; and Chad Houser, Executive Director and Chef, Café Momentum) to learn how we as leaders in our community can begin to be part of the solutions. While there, I had the opportunity to meet Victoria Sun Esparza, (staff member at CitySquare), and she explained that this organization represents hope for people as they walk alongside with them in their journey out poverty. CitySquare is a unique and powerful model of how homelessness and poverty can be holistically healed. They provide a two-way transformational relationship, in which people are not labeled, but called by their name, and given a voice for they too can offer solutions to their own problems. This is not objectification of the other, but a partnership based on relationships.
Very few have the resources to bring healing as CitySquare does, but almost everyone can ask a name and listen to a story. And if feeling daring, offer even a relationship. And this is so precious, for good relationships lead to dignified humanity, to have people we can call home, for home is not a place, but people to and with whom we belong.
Are we ready to ask people at least their names? Today, tomorrow, and for years to come we will continue to be challenged by this notion, and if there is to be a bright future, it is one in which we begin to shift from asking, “What is going to happen to me if I put myself out there to help the broken?” and instead ask, “What is going to happen to them if I don’t?” Truly helping people sometimes means going down into the ditch where they are helpless and work together the way out even if it means to get dirt under your fingernails, and walking every step out together with them, because, for many, there is no memory on how to even take a step on their own.
To waste a human life is to destroy beauty and perfection, to betray our own self as if we were stabbing ourselves into our own hearts. All human life has meaning, value, and is significant. To achieve full human potential is about accepting the fact that we are truly incredible, that humanity is an amazing gift and creation. Let no one go wasted, having to defend him or herself saying: I am not that.