Homeless But Not Hopeless
There’s something not quite right about the crooked set of his jaw, but unless he told you it was built of titanium you’d never know it. I must have walked past him and the kitten three or four times that weekend. It was Sunday night, the third and final day of the workshop. We finished early and this time I had no real place to go, and nothing to do. A stranger in a new town, I was completely free.
The kitten paid absolutely no attention to the hustling and bustling people of Philadelphia, who mostly mindlessly charged up and down Market Street. She luxuriated, outstretched without a care, oblivious to the dire situation of her companion, James.
This time I stopped, happy to be still and rest. I sat on the cardboard “help” sign in front of her, scratched her white and orange chin, tossed some coins into her bed, and asked James where she came from. That started a conversation that changed my life forever.
He found her dumped in a garbage can while he was looking for food. “Autumn” seems to have benefited from at least one of her lives when she was rescued by James, a man who has lived on the streets for over half a year. As I sat enjoying the conversation, at least three generous people handed James canned and dry cat food in passing, obviously planned. Autumn would eat for a month. She needed medicine for her ears and requires monthly flea medication, which James buys. A small carrier is her cozy home. For her, life is good.
For James it’s another mouth and body to feed and care for, and he cannot take occasional advantage of the cheapest housing, a hostel, because cats are not allowed there. But she gives him companionship, hope, and nonjudgmental and infinite love—and a purpose beyond himself in this world.
Compassion should compel us, not judgment
Recently there was an article in the Ottawa Citizen about a woman on disability who could not afford medical care for her injured cat. Ultimately she gave it up to the Humane Society who gave it the care it needed. Then she wanted it back, but they refused. I do understand that the Humane Society’s job is not to provide free veterinary care, but that situation sparked a debate on whether or not low income people should have pets. Instead of judging people and making such decisions for them, all of that energy would be better served directed at ways to assist people and pets in a time of need. Compassion should compel us, not judgment.
James was an engineer with a full time job when yet another tragic event in his life brought him to this place in time. Many people judge the homeless, perhaps thinking that they have it easy, are lazy or stupid, and perhaps believing that they don’t work. However James is no different from us; he has strategies and goals, and he works every day like us—but unlike us he is in a daily battle for survival.
What happened to him could have happened to you or me, or your child or sibling. (James was an only child.) Being more alike than not, once again all of that judgmental energy would be better directed at doing something useful.
James’ parents, his mother a poet and his father an artist who shared a studio with Peter Max at one time, passed their creativity on to him. He used to write poetry, often as a way to deal with previous life trauma, but people passing by, taken with his story and passionate words, would offer to buy his poignant prose, and desperate, he tore the sheets out and sold them. What is left now only exists in his memory, and due to a brain injury he has difficulty spelling. He began to force himself to write and spell as an exercise to “regain his intelligence” and is, in his words, “improving day by day.”
Contemplating how long it takes to recover from brain injuries, if ever, it struck me that the reason I know that is because I have a friend in the brain injury association who was thinking of writing a book as a fundraiser. “Click!” It hit me.
What I had to do was obvious
I am an author, not only presently gifted with so much more material abundance, but also with tools, resources, and skills that could easily help change things, and not just for a day, but for life. It would be practically nothing to me, but may mean the world to him, and to Autumn. The plan fell together; we would get him a voice recorder that he could dictate his poems and stories of the street into. I would post these in a blog and start a fund to help restart his life, and we could put a booklet together for him to sell. We hope a paralegal who has befriended him will help facilitate the plan. We would also accept donations to cover the recorder, batteries, printing of poetry booklets, any shipping costs, a vending license, and hopefully daily living costs. Yes, oddly, living homeless still costs.
Sitting beneath the news ticker with him, he read these words reflected in the window: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. That one plays a lot, he said.” It was a quote I had been re-tweeting just before traveling. I was gratefully amused.
No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. ~ Aesop
James gave me a tour of the subway system and helped me save on cab fare. When I returned to the second part of the course the next day and told people about him, we received his first five dollar donation. It bought him dinner that night, and hope for the future. Looking at James’ photo, one man’s jaw dropped open, and he told a story of a young child who, after leaving the public bathroom exclaimed, “There’s a man washing a kitten in the sink!” It was the same man and cat, he said. Autumn gets more love and better care on the street than many house-bound cats do.
A day will never go by that I do not think of James and Autumn, who may still be on the streets in the deadly winter.
Both parents killed
I am doing what I can to help a man who gives so much, and who also believes in paying it forward. As part of that, I will donate a buck a book to James for every copy of Alchemy sold. I look forward to sharing more details of James’ story and his wisdom as he speaks from the streets, and for now will leave you with the poem he wrote while dealing with grief after both of his parents were killed in a car accident.
PS—If you would like to make a donation, please use the button below. You will be thanked with a photo of James and I together. Note: this is not a registered charity (yet) and a receipt will not be issued. Please subscribe to this blog to be automatically sent his new posts from the street.
(I made up this title because I do not know if there is one, and I cannot ask James right now.)
The past, the present, and the future
are all pre-written.
In the future, when I present my past,
I hope it will give vision
to those listening.
So when you left
I learned about loss, and how to embrace it
Living a life so short,
yet having so much meaning
you made so many people happy
when you were born
yet there were twice as many people
left here to mourn.
If you knew you were going
would you say goodbye
or would you have kept it a secret
to avoid seeing me cry?
Does a sympathy card give me comfort?
Does a hug give me strength?
I guess you went back to where you came from
since you were heaven sent.
So as the rain falls
and the wind blows out the flame
that once lit so steadily,
goodbye for now and I’ll see you
when God’s ready for me.
~ James Matt
NOVEMBER 8, 2012 UPDATE
James has found a shelter, and Autumn has found a new home. She will soon be spayed, thanks to the contribution of donors.
THANK-YOU! May all you give come back ten-fold! (Or more :- )