The ‘nonsignificant’ among us

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A homeless man in Washington folds his cot June 22 after being forced to move elsewhere by the police. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The homeless person sitting on the corner near our church never moved off his bench despite freezing temperatures. No matter the time of day, there he sat bundled up in clothes people had donated.

As I handed him $10, I told him, “Do me a favor, get a good meal and take cover near our rectory.” The confused look in his eyes said to me, “He won’t move off that bench.”

Father Eugene Hemrick writes for the Catholic News Service column “The Human Side.” He is the director for the National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood. (Bob Roller/CNS)

I was again struck by the plight of the homeless when driving under a viaduct. Overnight, an entire tent city had risen up under it.

Down the hill from the U.S. Capitol, homelessness is visible all along Constitution Avenue. Grates that spew steam are covered by homeless people who prefer — or are left with no choice — but to sleep on them rather than take shelter.

When we consider the world of homelessness, it is mind-boggling. How can people sit outdoors in freezing weather all day doing nothing? Although they may be living in the freedom of the outdoors, their lives are far from free. They are imprisoned in a world of daily meaninglessness.

For many, it is a life of loneliness devoid of social amenities we take for granted. For others who are mentally or physically impaired, it is a life of wandering. Many were victims of abuse as children or faced other traumatic experiences, and many suffer from addiction.

And then there are those who are angry at the world and have divorced themselves from it.

The bane of homelessness is feeling insignificant — to feel you don’t count or have anything to contribute to life. When a sense of importance is lost, one’s vitality is lost. Zest and gusto, vital for a wholesome life, ceases to exist.

Abundant success stories about homelessness have been documented. At the core of these stories are dedicated persons who were able to restore another person’s self-worth. This is not an easy task. It means breaking into a mind often times filled with blockades, resentments, hurts, distrust, disillusionment and bitterness. In many cases, it translates into trying to repair years of mental chaos.

Today, we are truly blessed by those devoted people who are out there in the streets and shelters serving the destitute daily. Not everyone is blessed with this vocation. All of us, however, can do our part. When we see homeless people, all it takes is stopping to talk with them, asking them how they are, and in doing so, to make them feel significant.