The Kindness of Strangers

So there’s a storm gearing up, heavy winds and all that jazz.  Last year at this time, my son and I were living in a van with my boyfriend.  The pace of life when you are living outside of the matrix is astonishingly different.  So different, it is hard to describe.  Living in a van has some advantages, the sights you can see, the people you may meet, none of which mean anything if you don’t have money for gas and food.  Ah, those devilish details.

It was my little one’s 9th birthday this past Monday and we took a day trip to see Mount Saint Helen’s.  The view and the wonder of it were spectacular to witness.  But having that home to go back to after a long day on the road, out of the elements, out of the eye of public scrutiny, a bathroom with running and hot water, the things that get so taken for granted, I remember to be grateful for all too well.  Just one year ago we had quite a different experience on my son’s birthday.

During September of last year we were kicked off of the land we had been staying on, helping a “hippie” with her food forest idea.  We weren’t flat broke but everyone else was and they wanted us to share equally.  The problem was everyone but my little family and one other gentleman would be heading for warmer parts while we would remain on the land, facing the wet and cold Washington winter thus making it necessary to hang on to the cash we had left.  We could not share equally and survive the winter with nothing while they bunked with family in Georgia and Arizona.  The expectation was that we care for them, but it was not a reciprocal care and when we didn’t comply, got ourselves kicked out for it.  There was also the issue of my school aged child bringing the attention of the “authorities” and causing the landowner to have to act in accordance with a few things she was not financially able to, like laws concerning septic and other health and safety codes.

We had a make-shift wigwam for shelter and a wood stove.  It wouldn’t have been awesome but we could have survived.   After getting kicked to the curb we had to find places to stay that didn’t charge so that we could continue to use the money we had left for insurance payments, gas, food and a hefty chunk for a deposit in the event we were able to find someone to rent to us or something went out on the van.   That didn’t leave a lot of options because we wanted to stay in the county so that if housing help became available we would still be eligible.  Trying to find legal and free places to park and sleep in your vehicle is a lot more difficult than it sounds.  We could rarely stay in a place for more than 3 hours without upsetting someone or inevitably having to repeat our circumstances to the police on a daily basis.

We spent a lot of time at the nearest rest area where you could park for 8 hours before getting in hot water.  This wasn’t always a slam dunk however, because too many people still generally despise the poor.  My son and I are still dealing with the trauma following our homeless experience.  The looks and comments you’d get from people not even willing to ask for your story and the tsk tsk’s or people calling the authorities on you because you’re cooking over a campstove at a park in order to get your kid a hot meal.  Instant and relentless judgment.  I still don’t have words to describe the unrelenting stress of it all.  Every once in a while, someone would break that spell of constant emotional bullying and it would keep us going and by going, I mean wanting to be alive.

A couple days before his birthday last year, we decided to find an actual campground with a shower so we could get cleaned up and get a break from the threat of police contact. That felt like an awesome birthday present to me.  We showed up pretty late and since there wasn’t anyone working and no slips to fill out, we decided to wait until morning to figure out who and how to pay for the right to sleep in an empty parking lot without getting harassed.  My son was the first one up which was pretty normal and he headed to the bathroom where he ran into the custodian of the campground doing her rounds.  She told my little guy we weren’t allowed to park where we were.   I was instantly enraged.  I didn’t think it was appropriate for her to say anything to my son, but I was mostly mad at myself for not getting out of the pile of blankets that were keeping me warm to walk the 20 feet with him to the bathroom.  We both learned a lot that morning.

I don’t think she even realized we were homeless when she first talked to my son, it was the barrage of exclamations coming from me as I quickly threw on shoes and coat from the van, that clued her in.  Though we started out the morning as enemies, she would single-handedly restore my faith in humanity later that day and the next day and the one after that as well.

She paid for us to stay at the campsite for three days.  She brought us a home-cooked meal, 2 bags of groceries and held me while we both cried.  I was so damn broken and defensive from so much hatred and verbal harassment thrown at me that this kindness undid me.

When she found out that we were celebrating two birthdays, she showed up the afternoon of my little guy’s big day with presents.  He was blessed with a new outfit, new shoes and two new toys.  She even brought a toy for our dog.  She brought a few propane canisters and snacks and a giant reminder that we mattered.  She made phone calls to the county on our behalf because I don’t think she understood I had already done that legwork but just because you get on a list for housing doesn’t mean you won’t be homeless while you wait.

We’ve named a few things in our life after that kind woman.  The chips she brought are now called “Nancy chips” and the campground we stayed at has been christened “Nancy camp”.  I don’t want to ever forget her.  She is probably the reason I had the courage to separate from my boyfriend and enter the family shelter with my son (where you have to be married to share a room with your partner)  a short three weeks later.  Her kindness gave me strength to try harder to trust humans again.  It was humans I was impossibly trying to run from.

So this birthday season was poignant.  It was a profound reminder of how far I’ve been able to come due to some unexpected grace and mercy bestowed on me by others.  We stopped at Denny’s for our birthday meal after our day at Mt. St. Helen’s.  A young man came to our “hippie van” door asking for a cigarette, asking if we were “travelers”, to which I was able to reply, “not anymore”.  He blessed me with the chance to bestow a little grace back into the Universe by giving him some of our time, some of the tobacco we keep in the van for moments like this and for lack of a better way to say this, normal human interaction that uses kind words and a little humor instead of bullying and judgment.

I know very well how far a little kindness can take a person and it is because of this I have tried with all of my resolve to heal from the past and encourage others to remember that homeless people are actually our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters, someone’s child, someone’s grandchild.  As people start to wake up to the reality of our corrupt system, please remember that a lot of those people you see living hour by hour, outside of society’s norms and protection, are either the direct victims of or engaged in an act of rebellion against that corruption.

It is always the people who know what it’s like to go without, to heat your food over a propane stove in a deserted parking lot, that understand life happens to us all.  It is long past time for us to start funneling the right resources to the right people so that no child is spending their birthday as a homeless child waiting on a miracle in one of the wealthiest countries on this planet.  Every time you hear someone speak badly about the homeless, remind them that you cannot judge a book by it’s a cover, or a life by the chapter you walk in on.  Remind them of the housing market bubble that burst 8 years ago and permanently altered life for millions of Americans and the few who benefited from it without regard to the consequences.  Nancy had lost her house in that fiasco, (just like my mother did).  She was living in a 5th wheel with her husband at a campground just down the road and owned by the same people who owned the one we met her working at.

Be each other’s grace and hope and reason.  It matters.  When the money is gone, it will be compassion and cooperation and those who know these tools that will prosper the most.  If I were you, I’d start investing in that market right now.  The dividends are priceless.

{This video is one of the few times we were treated a bit outrageously and able to capture it but I have heard and experienced firsthand countless stories of bullying heaped on those who are impoverished, many of which simply do not have the family support to get out of homelessness without help and kindness from strangers.  The bullying needs to stop, please speak up if you witness it.  It is egregious and does not help a person find the strength and will to rejoin society.}

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