I Have Never Been Homeless

I have never been homeless.

Or truly hungry.

Or without a safety net to fall back on in my world of loving family and friends.

When we didn't know where we were going to live after our tenure at university was over, there was no question or hesitation that we would always have a place to stay with my parents if we needed it, and for nearly nine months we did. And when we forgot about a financial commitment right before our house payment was due one time, the first and only time that has ever happened, there was a jar of money available to us for a loan for whatever we needed to pay our bills. (Which we promptly repaid.)

And no, I've never truly had to worry about having enough food to eat. There was the time we survived solely on ramen noodles and boxed macaroni and cheese for a few weeks when Chris had his first blood clot and was out of work for four months. My measly paycheck working as a teacher's aide in the English department at our university didn't offer much to fall back on at the time. It felt scary to have so little in our bank account, but we were never really close to going truly hungry. We were grateful for the food we could afford, even if we weren't going to win any awards for healthy eating. It was better than nothing.

When Chris had his second blood clot, we had less savings to fall back on, and though we were blessed to have short term disability insurance through Chris's employer, it was barely enough to make our house payment and pay for doctors' co-pays and gas to and from the many doctor appointments he needed.

That is probably the lowest point we have ever been at in our financial history, and I never expected to be standing in line in the busy waiting room of our local welfare office to prove to the workers there that we couldn't afford food and needed state assistance. The woman who helped me was so kind. She never made me feel less-than or like I was a leech on the system. She was truly helpful and left me feeling empowered rather than trod upon.

But it was humbling. Every time I pulled out that EBT card to pay for groceries, I wondered who was judging me. Were the people in line behind me taking inventory of my purchases, as if my inability to pay for my own food somehow entitled them to decide what I could and couldn't eat?

I knew people did that. Because I used to do that, and I've listened to my friends do that, too.

It's been more than six years since that humbling situation, and while we dropped the food card as soon as it expired and we were back on our feet, the experience changed me.

We've never had to visit that welfare office again, though we came close a couple of years ago when Chris was dealing with chronic leg ulcers. He spent months with a bandaged leg, making multiple weekly visits to his doctor and to wound care specialists and vascular surgeons and radiologists before the doctors finally figured out why his leg wasn't healing. We have better health insurance than anyone we know, and still the costs piled up from all of the co-pays and gas and bandages and medication in addition to the missed work from the times when his leg would randomly start spurting liters of blood all over our house or his work area or the ER. Right in the middle of this, one of his teeth fell apart and needed to be removed, and that was even more expensive. We are the lucky ones with insurance to pay for all of this, and still it nearly broke us.

Thanks to our tiny house payments, we managed to muddle through the rough times that year with enough food to eat and money to pay our medical bills. We have a very tightly woven safety net of family and friends, and I know that we are fortunate. There but for the grace of God...

If I've learned anything from this experience, it's to put a real face on the needs of people we see out in our community. It's to not judge the food in the grocery cart. Every person has a story. Some stories are harder to live than others, and we never know which kind of story the person standing in front of us is living.

I am not naive enough to believe that every person who partakes of the charity of others is truly needy, yet at the same time I find myself ill qualified to decide that one person is deserving of help while another is not. It's not my job.

What I do know is that we are surrounded by human beings who have been dealt poor hands in life. I have benefited from the luxuries and privilege of growing up in a safe, middle class home in a good neighborhood, attending amazing schools. I rarely knew want, let alone need. And it took being in need for me to realize that the leg up society gave me due solely to the birthright I had not earned is not available to everyone. I do not fear becoming homeless or hungry because I know that help will always be there for me, whether in the form of help from friends and family or from state assistance and of course learning to be happier with less while we work to pull ourselves up from whatever hole we may find ourselves in someday. Not everyone has the safety net that we do. Not everyone has the luxury of confidence in the charity of others to keep them from drowning.

As long as I am standing firmly on solid ground, and even if that ground begins to shake, I am determined to be one of the ones who reaches down to help others up rather than turning away and saying it's their problem and not my own.

I don't always know what actions to take to be part of the solution, but I do know this: It begins with compassion, and compassion is something we all can choose to cultivate.