Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Eye Contact

To be honest in the past I have often avoided homeless people. I didn't know what to say or do. Not only that, there was the awkward moment when they would ask for money. There was a real part of me that wondered if money wouldn't hurt them more than help them, so what did I do? I walked to the other side of the street, made sure my window was up when I came to their corner but mostly just avoided eye contact.

Ventura California is a beautiful town with amazing parks, beaches and piers.

Me in a tree, at a height my wife was mad about, in a park in Ventura
The main pier is really the heart of the town. At its base stands a taco shop that is never in short supply of fish tacos or customers. Along its sides, anglers can be seen talking, sharing a drink or slicing fish guts. This attracts sea gulls and pelicans that soar just above those walking and around the pier hoping to get the innards of the most recent catch. Joggers and bikers are out improving their shape by passing over the aged planks. And between all this is hundreds of tourists trying to take it all in. Get on the pier for 30 seconds and you see why it attracts so many. The view is spectacular and the pier extends out enough that looking outward you feel as if you're miles at sea with nothing but its expanse in view. Turn to the side and you see the endless extent of shoreline with waves crashing on the beaches.

View from the main pier in Ventura
There is one group of people I failed to note; they are also fellow passengers on this pier—the homeless. You might call them unnoticed, but there is an active participant in this passive description. The opposite side of the pier from them is always a little more busy, and a hard-to-find bench seat is always wide open when shared by one such occupant. City police are anxious to ensure these vagrants do not become a deterrent to the cities most iconic feature and, therefore, allow no panhandling or sleeping. Even loitering for too long will have them asking you move along, that is, if you are loitering and you look homeless.

It was dusk, and the crowds had begun to thin. I noticed an older man sitting on one of the benches. His bike with a small trailer sat next to him. It was filled with half broken fishing poles, nets, old magazines and some card board signs used for begging.

He was talking on an old style flip phone. I sat next to him as the last light of day began to flee. Once he got off the phone, I began to talk with him.

Raymond was 63. He was born and raised in Ventura and had spent most of his life there. Throughout most of his adulthood, he had been a construction laborer working odds and ends jobs: painting, carpenter work or pouring concrete.

"How long have you been on the streets?" I ask.

"Two years."

"Were you ever homeless before that?"

"No."

"How did it happen?"

"Got in a fight with a roommate and got thrown out. I had a job at the time and thought I'd be out for a few weeks while I saved rent, but then I lost my job. At first I started panhandling and could get enough for a hotel and food most nights but not very often anymore."

"Why the decrease?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe people get used to seeing me and don't feel like helping the same guy over and over."

"Who were you talking to?"

"My wife, Delphina, it's her 60th birthday today."

"Your wife! Where is she?" I will admit my question probably showed too much surprise. It seemed odd he'd be speaking to his wife on a cell phone while homeless. Looking back, it may not have been that strange, but it took me off guard.

"She lives in town. She's a care taker for an older woman. The job gives her a room to live in. I go and visit her most days. I will try to visit her later tonight." Much like the homeless, working widow I met in Arizona, this challenged my view of who homeless people are. I just never would have pictured a 60 year old couple, one working as a care taker and the other roaming the streets, when I thought of the homeless.

"Any kids?"

"I have a daughter from my first wife. Well technically...," he paused, "we never married."

He goes onto explain that he met, fell in love with and moved in with Ruby, a woman with a 9 year old son.  He raised the boy and they had a daughter together as well. He was with Ruby until she died in 2001 of a stroke. A year later, the boy died. They are buried together in a cemetery he often visits. The daughter he had with Ruby lives in Fresno with her 3 kids, his grand kids, ages 10, 8 and 6, but he has not seen her or the kids in 3 years, which he says is because she hates his new wife, Delphina, and refuses to see him until he drops her.

"What do you plan to get Delphina for her Birthday?"

"I planned to get her a mother's ring. See she has 7 children from before she married me and she wants a ring that has each of their birthstones. She asked her kids to get it for her but they wont. I put some money down on it but don't have it paid off yet. I'll will just tell her about it for her birthday."

I ask him about where he sleeps and it sounds like wherever he can. Police must be fairly aggressive in Ventura when it comes to vagrancy because he says they often wake him up and tell him to move on and often give him a ticket as well. He always asks them where he should move on to and to go ahead a write the ticket because it won't do any good.

When asked how he plans to get off the streets he mentions 2 options:

A few years ago he visited his sister in Vegas. While there he went to a party and a guy who runs an HVAC shop offered him a job. As he told me about it, he pulled out a well worn business card of an HVAC mechanic from Vegas. "I could get to Vegas and take him up on his offer."

"Another option is Social Security," he continued. "I was in the social security office today and, being 63, am eligible for my benefits, but only $600 a month. In Ventura that won't even pay for rent. But, if I wait until 66, I'll get $1,200."

What a dilemma. Get $600 a month now, an amount he sees as small enough that he may be better off waiting on the streets with nothing until he can get $1,200 and be able to afford rent. The fact that a homeless man even considered waiting made me rethink some of my perceptions. I thought of that famous experiment which tested if little children could wait to eat a marshmallow if they were offered a a second marshmallow for waiting. Could you take the two marshmallows later if it meant living in the cold for 3 years while you waited?

We discussed a few other things, I got a picture (although with almost zero light left it wasn't very good), and I left.

Raymond and Myself on the pier in Ventura
I did give him a small sum of money, but what struck me was he seemed far more appreciative of the conversation than the money. I am certain that if no money had exchanged hands, both he and I would have been glad to have met. What did he appreciate? I think that it was simply being treated like a human, a child of God.

People often rise or fall to the level that others treat them. We often call this rising to the expectations. When others have faith in us and trust in our ability to succeed, it helps us believe in ourselves. Often, it takes others to think we can before we ourselves, like the little engine that could, can say we actually think we can. Hence why athletes praise the coach that believed in them. But just as positive feedback can create a loop of thought that leads to success,  negative feedback can have the opposite affect.

What message do we send? What feedback do we create when we cross the street to avoid someone? What message does it send when, to avoid speaking with someone, we won't even make eye contact? What collective message would you receive when person after person pretends to be looking the other direction so they don't have to look at you?

Yes, maybe money won't always help, so don't give them money when you don't feel you should. So, what can you do? Treat them as Christ would. Love them. Believe in their ability to become something better. Look at them with a smile that lets them know you care.

I believe Raymond appreciated the conversation because it was rare for a stranger to treat him like they cared, to treat him like he was worth the time and believed in him. I wondered when the last time was a stranger treated him this way. I have no proof of this, but my guess is it was several years ago in Las Vegas by an HVAC mechanic. I don't think he holds onto that old card because he really believes that job is still there; rather, it is a symbol of someone who cares, someone who believes in Raymond. I hope I will be better at treating others such that, even if they don't keep my card for years in their wallet, they keep the name of him whom I strive to represent in their hearts.

5 comments:

  1. Beautifully told Nathaniel. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. Love to you guys and Merry Christmas.

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    1. Thank you so much and thanks for reading.

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  2. Another poignant story, Nathaniel. I'm so proud of you and how generous you are with your time, interest and heart.

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    1. I get everything good thing from your daughter.

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    2. Thanks. She's amazing, too. You guys make a great team!

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