There is a large cement bridge at the intersection of 8 Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, on the border of Ferndale and Detroit. The yoga studio where I teach and practice is located at the corner of 9 Mile Road and Woodward. Every time I drive to the studio, I pass under that bridge.
At the stoplight right before the bridge there are usually one or two homeless people sitting on a milk crate with a sign asking for money. One time, the sign said "You are all we've got." And as I pass under the bridge, I can see the makings of their home. A shopping cart, some clothes and a pile of blankets and cardboard. Sometimes I even see a person sleeping there.
I remember when the problem of homelessness was a city problem. You only used to see homeless people lying on the sidewalk in Detroit. Most of them had mental illness and they rarely interacted with people in any way, except maybe to hold out a cup and ask for some change.
In the last year or so, it seems like the problem of homelessness has moved into the suburbs. On Easter Sunday, I was driving to visit my ex-boyfriend and there was a woman standing at the freeway exit on Rawsonville Road, which is near Ypsillanti. I gave her a few dollars that day. And I noticed her there many other times afterwards.
There is another woman who stands at the Ford Road exit of the Southfield Freeway. She is thin, with leathery tan skin and a blonde ponytail. Her cardboard sign says that she was evicted and has three kids. I think about them a lot. I wonder where they sleep and whether they are able to go to school.
The guy that hangs out under the freeway bridge on Woodward looks like he should be surfing on a beach in California or playing bass in an alternative rock band. He has a head full of sandy blonde curls and he always smiles and waves to us as we drive by.
These aren't nameless, faceless people curled up on the sidewalk in the city. These are the faces of homelessness that I see every day. They are a part of my Sunday morning commute. They are there when I am on my way home from dinner on a Friday night.
Each of these people is a human. And each of them has a story. And their story is more than just a few words written on a cardboard sign.
Maybe I have simply become more sensitive to the human condition since my yoga training. Or maybe the human condition has started to shift to the point that it is forcing all of us to take notice. As of January 2014, the richest one percent of the world's population controlled 46% of the world's wealth. And the poorest 50% of the world's population accounted for only one percent of the world's wealth.
We all know that the gap between the most well off and the least well off in our country is growing. And now it seems like the least well off are trying just a little harder to get our attention. It makes sense in a way. Since all of the people with money have left the city to move to the suburbs, the homeless people have started to migrate to the suburbs as well.
Yesterday I was at a yoga training program up in Birmingham. It is an extremely wealthy suburb and it is no where near the border of Detroit. I stopped at the Kroger to get a snack on our dinner break. As I was driving out of the parking lot, I passed a girl standing there in what appeared to be pajama pants and a sweatshirt. She had a sign that said "Homeless and a cancer patient." She was mostly bald, except for a few wisps of hair that were sticking out on the side of her head.
I didn't really recognize what her sign said until I had already passed her and turned out of the parking lot. As I drove up the street, I started to process her story and this image of her face just flashed in my mind. I knew I had to turn back.
I pulled back into the Kroger parking lot and this time as I drove by, I rolled down my window and gave her $20. I only had a few singles or a twenty, and somehow a few singles did not seem like enough. She looked like a skeleton with large bulging eyes, yet there was a softness to her. She thanked me and I held her gaze for just a moment and said "Good luck."
Then it was over. And I went on with my day.
I don't pretend that I have the answer to this problem. But somehow I feel compelled to share these stories. I used to see homeless people and not give them money because I thought they should use the services available to them, such as shelters. And many people probably still feel that way.
Lately, I have started to look at this issue a little differently. We should donate money to the larger organizations, and of course we can feel confident that our money is going to help people in need. But at the same time, I find it harder and harder to turn my back on the individual people that are standing right in front of me and asking for my help.
Of course, I am not part of the one percent. So I can't afford to give money to every single person I see, every day that I see them. But every once in awhile, I can stop and try to help one person. And maybe you can too.