A Different View of the Homeless




by Wayne Teasdale 

In a rather depressing cartoon, a rotund, wealthy man walking up a New York avenue comes across three homeless people, each staking out a different street corner. On encountering the first, he yells at him, “Get a job!” The homeless man is, needless to say, a little taken aback. Then the wealthy man rounds the corner and bumps into the second homeless gentleman, to whom he blurts, “Get a grip!” Like the first, the second man is startled by this assault. The wealthy man continues past him up the avenue and meets the third homeless man. He saunters over to him, enjoying his sense of power and control, and bellows in his face: “Get a life, you scum!” With a smug sense of satisfaction, the rich man keeps walking, happy with the advice he’s delivered to these people who contribute “nothing” to society. After walking a few more blocks, he turns another corner and runs directly into the three homeless men standing together. Surrounding him, they firmly yet gently remind him: “Get a heart!”

Facing Your Inner Leper

My own reactions to the homeless poor have gone through an evolution. From annoyance, resentment, and inconvenience to spontaneous compassion, my feelings about them have steadily developed. Sometimes I have tried to avoid them, but in the city they are practically on every corner. Everywhere one turns, panhandlers stand like guards on duty. For a while I would simply give money in an almost perfunctory manner and not really engage them or actually see them for who they are. But as time went on, and after seemingly endless encounters, I realized that these people are precious, that I was missing something important, something essential I must face squarely.

Like St. Francis of Assisi, I had to face my own inner leper, my own fear oft he vulnerability I saw in these souls. St. Francis found lepers repugnant. He knew he had to accept them and love them, but they repulsed him. He experienced an almost visceral reaction to them. Then one day as Francis was on his way to a new town to preach, he saw a leper in the distance ringing a bell. “Unclean, get away,” the leper shouted. “I’m unclean.” Francis approached him, embraced him, and kissed him on the lips. In these acts he conquered his fear. That night he had a vivid dream. The leper appeared to him, and it was Christ!

I began to look deeply into the eyes of all the street people I met. I began to see them on a much subtler level. I began to see Spirit, Christ, or God in them. Although it’s usually never convenient when we meet the poor — the Gospel is not about convenience, but about love in every situation — it is crucial for us to respond in some way from our hearts. I understood the homeless are a test of our humanity, and a test of each one of us who has this opportunity given to them. I also realized I had to do something.

I am not usually the type to found organizations and programs, nor am I much of an administrator. I prefer to approach the problem unsystematically and spontaneously, as I encounter street people. My work with them is a quiet, personal response, not a public program. Unorganized, but deeply committed, I reach out to the homeless as I meet them. In time, some of these people have become an important part of my life, and I couldn’t conceive of my life being any other way. These precious souls have greatly enriched me with their unique personalities, their wisdom, and humor. They have deepened my understanding of the meaning of our time here on this precious planet.

The various reactions to the poor that I’ve experienced are, I think, fairly typical. Living an intense and comprehensive spiritual life as a monastic is no guarantee that one’s attitude will be more enlightened. Three Catholic monks in Chicago during the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993taught me this vividly. Although I mentioned this incident in my book The Mystic Heart, it is so appropriate and ironic, it bears repeating here.

Two of these three monks were Benedictine, and one was a Trappist. I know all three very well; one told me the story because it had so disturbed him. They were walking to their car from the hotel where the sessions of the Parliament were held. As they walked, the Trappist was presenting an idea about service to the homeless, expanding on the talk they had just participated in, while the other two listened. As they got deeply into their discussion, a street person lying prostrate on the pavement began to call to them. Two of them continued the conversation, taking no notice of the man, even though it was impossible to miss his presence. The younger of the monks looked long at the homeless man, who was obviously in distress and need. He wanted to do something, at least to talk to the poor soul, but he didn’t know how to approach him. The monk was himself a bit of an introvert, and he realized that he’d never received any teaching in his monastery about the demands of compassion, how to move from theory to action.

This is a common problem for most of us. It requires a mature spirituality to respond in such situations. These three monks are all compassionate people, but they’d lived for so many years isolated from the world’s deepest suffering that they didn’t know what to do. The problem of homelessness is not something they have to deal with, as most of us don’t. We need to learn how to respond, and that’s where wisdom must guide our essentially compassionate natures.

Light on the Streets: Evolving a Caring Heart

In developing compassion, begin with the realization that all sentient beings want to be happy and avoid suffering, as the Dalai Lama often reminds us. Just as we each want to be happy and free of pain, anxiety, and illness, so do all the people we meet. This is just as true of street people as it is of us. They want so much to be happy, to be liberated from their condition. Very few of them have chosen to be homeless and alone. Circumstances have conspired to bring them to their unfortunate situation. Tender commiseration is the beginning of growing the compassionate heart, which we all have, if only we could allow ourselves the freedom to live out of this deeper, more ultimate nature we all have in common.

One simple but effective way to develop compassion is to intend it each day — to think of it and reflect on its nature as part of you, part of all of us. Our compassion is a fruit of our spiritual lives; it actually arises spontaneously when formed by intention in our spiritual practice. Love and compassion are always the goods of the spiritual journey, and they are guided by divine wisdom, which then shapes compassion in the concrete situations of our existence. Compassion, love, mercy, and kindness are the attributes of our true and common nature when we become freed from social conditioning and the indifference that often accompanies ignorance. The mystical life awakens knowledge of our genuine nature; it is a path to who we really are. The more we pursue it honestly, the more we become aware of our innate love and compassion.

Another effective way to realize our compassionate nature is through suffering. A divorce, the death of a loved one, a serious illness, a broken heart — all these put us into contact with our deeper nature and thus open our hearts to others’ suffering and vulnerability. To learn from suffering, we have to be open to it, to allow it to shape our other-centeredness.

Compassion, or what the Christian tradition has called charity, a translation of agape, the selfless, divine love of the Gospel — what Jesus exemplified and taught — is the avenue to understanding the vulnerability, marginality, and sufferings of the homeless and other street poor. Compassion allows us to see what may not be immediately obvious: the basic needs of the street people, the needs that are also our needs for food, clothing, and medical protection as well as for affirmation, acceptance, and a sense of home.

Basic temporalities are more obvious — while affirmation, acceptance, and a sense of home may not be. But they become more obvious as we engage homeless people in real conversation. When we look into the eyes of a man or woman on the street we perceive their fundamental need for affirmation. Everyone wants his or her story heard. To affirm others, especially those who are suffering, in need, or desperate, is to proclaim their value, their worth, and especially their worthiness of love. They must be affirmed, as all of us must. Like the rest of us, the homeless want to be seen, affirmed, and accepted.

In the cartoon about the heartless rich man and the three street people we can discern the problem with this man’s attitude. He is inwardly dead, in a state of ignorance that disconnects him from his ultimate nature: his compassion, love, kindness, and mercy. He is so absorbed in himself, in his wealth, in the ease of his life that he could neither see nor accept the suffering of those three people. He relied on social notions of what’s right, the roles people are supposed to play in society, and he closed himself off to the reality of their lives. He missed a precious opportunity to grow. Of course this was only a cartoon, but one with truth behind it, reflecting many people’s attitudes.

In our encounters with the poor, as with anyone, we need to show that we accept them. Acceptance appears in our willingness to be present to them, not simply to pass them by or give them money to get rid of them. If we give them money in a perfunctory manner, they will know it. Often this seems like what they want, but we are then passing an opportunity to exchange spirit through conversation, through opening our hearts to them, through really listening deeply and with commiseration.

In addition to affirmation and acceptance, the homeless poor desperately need a sense of home, that is, to actually have a home, even a room, which they can enter, close the door to, and live in peace. Just as all of us thrive in the sanctuary of our own homes, the homeless need not just a shelter, a room in another’s house, but their own space. This insight seems very basic, but considering this point with compassion reveals its deep truth. A home represents security, the security of being free of the vagaries of the street, the noise and occasional violence of shelters, and the indifference of the world. With a true home comes a sense of protection, well-being, and hope. Reflect on all the qualities of home for you, what your home means to you, your family, and friends, and then by extension apply those insights to the street people.

Although they will never entirely solve the problem, many individual projects and shelters make tremendous inroads into the suffering of the homeless. In Evanston, Illinois, north of Chicago, a forward-looking faith community called Lake Street Church is trying to address the needs of the homeless. The pastor of this Baptist community, the Reverend Robert Thompson, is also the chairman of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. His church welcomes members from any tradition, not just Christians, and has a fourteen-year-old fully functioning facility for the homeless, which houses thirty-two people every night, 365 days a year. The Lake Street Church strives to give the people who stay there a sense of security, home, peace, and well-being. It looks after all their needs, including medical treatment, but always strives to prepare them to return to a normal life rather than creating dependence.  The people staying there receive counseling, practice job interviews, and training. They are given transitional housing and gentle supervision while they slowly integrate back into regular life. The approach of the Lake Street Church is imaginative and socially responsible. It indicates the kind of response that is possible when people get in touch with their intrinsic compassion.

Another wonderful program for economically marginalized people is a center in Seattle run by the Catholic Church. The Archdiocese of Seattle bought a huge old hotel downtown and has invited street people to live there. More than a shelter, it strives to offer real independence for approximately five hundred residents. They all have their own rooms, can have a phone, and can eat in the facility’s cafeteria. Most of the people fortunate enough to be residents have jobs, usually secured with the help of the facility’s staff members. Most of their rents are subsidized. This hotel serves a great function, stimulating concern and response from the more fortunate.

Obviously, there are many programs for the homeless, including thousands of soup kitchens and shelters run by generous, dedicated souls, but the Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and her community in the1930s represents a significant advance in understanding their situation and finding a solution to it. Catholic Worker Houses exist in the major cities of America. They are based on her Mary and Joseph Houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she would personally welcome the homeless.

Day’s unique contribution was to embrace the homeless in her own home, in total vulnerability to them and with them. She allowed them to live with her and her community, letting them take up every space possible, and always making room for others who came along. “If every family took in one homeless person, then there would be no problem of homelessness,” she would often say, echoing Mother Teresa’s views. The generosity of permitting others in need to live with us is a giant step forward in responding to this difficult issue. Her approach opens a space within our hearts, overcoming the false dichotomy that distinguishes these souls from us and it celebrates the intrinsic interdependence among us all.

The vision of my former community, Hundred Acres Monastery in New Hampshire, which existed from 1964 to 1992, was in many ways similar to the Catholic Worker communities in its sensitivity and openness to the homeless. In fact, I often have thought that Hundred Acres was a Catholic Worker house in “slow motion” — it definitely had its spirit, though in a rural setting and with only a few street people living there. Overall, we strived to welcome everyone who came to our door. This openness and welcoming attitude was initiated by the founder of the community, Father Paul Fitzgerald, a Trappist monk.

Father Paul’s mission of opening the monastery to the homeless began one night in the mid-sixties, around midnight, when a German teenage girl came to the monastery door, knocking loudly and urgently. Father Paul got out of bed to answer it and found the poor girl terribly distraught, crying and irrational. She had just broken up with her American boyfriend and had no place to go. “Can I stay for a day or two, please?” she pleaded through her tears. Father Paul looked at her with great empathy and welcomed her, saying: “Please, let me show you to your room!” Father Paul was willing to live the Gospel, and he did, just like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and countless others. Father Paul’s loving acceptance had wonderful results. The girl, who without a place to stay might have been victim to suicide, rape, or other injury, went on to thrive in the United States and became a successful business woman.

What Do the Homeless Teach Us?

In my growing appreciation for the homeless, I have come to believe that people living on the street have a lot to offer us: profound insights gleaned as we process our experiences with them. Although they are not intentionally our teachers and most likely don’t realize the insight into life they offer, they can offer us deep understandings about life.  Unwittingly, simply through their difficult position, they perform a vital function. They may not intend to be our teachers, but the poor grant us a unique perspective on life we cannot find elsewhere.

What is it that they can teach us? They remind us of the impermanence of this existence and how attached we are to what passes away. We have so much, and when confronted with people who have nothing — who are vulnerable, helpless, and destitute — we receive their help in overcoming fear and insecurity. The poor hold this power — the power of truth itself. When we respond in love instead of fear, when we don’t ignore them but instead see them and consider their condition, are we not reminded of our own ultimate fragility and tentativeness as beings in this world?

Of course, we fear the loss of basic security the condition of the homeless represents. It’s a forced loss of attachment, a nonpossessiveness they have no choice about, at least in the beginning. Each moment of a street person’s life is taken up with survival, and we become the key to that pursuit. Their situation of being stripped of everything is too painful for most of us to look at. We much prefer to hide in the shadows of a questionable happiness, in our comfortable abundance. Whenever we see a street person, these insecurities and fears surface, like spirits in the night.

The homeless, quite unconsciously, draw our attention to our grasping nature, how we are always pursuing acquisition of more and more things, of power and position, of property and money. If we can prevent ourselves from succumbing to our natural weakness and fear by turning away, they force us to think of our position. They also compel us to see society’s gross inequity. More basically still, they prove the truth of the Gospel, which tells us that people are more important than money and property. They allow us to understand how foolishly we pursue things that are useless if we fail in the ways of compassion, love, kindness, and mercy. The poor, through their quiet presence in the streets and elsewhere, continually call us to reflect on our priorities.

Their impoverishment ultimately reminds us of our own poverty of existence and time, that this life is impermanent, regardless of how much we embellish it with wealth. When we are separated from all the goods of this world, we are no different from our homeless brothers and sisters. Even without economic, social, and educational equality, there is an inescapable existential equality among us all. In the late 1980s, India’s tragically impoverished inspired me to reflect on what was really essential in my life. These poor souls — poor economically, though rich culturally, spiritually, and humanly — taught me a profound lesson, one I’ve never forgotten. The homeless poor are everywhere on the subcontinent, and I noticed in the vast majority of them that, though destitute and possessing nothing, they were happy and serene beyond comprehension, a serenity connected with their faith, not their poverty! They taught me that one needs very little to be happy, that happiness is a spiritual quality that has absolutely nothing to do with wealth and possessions. This critical lesson is, of course, universally valid.

Simplicity and Sharing

The overwhelming poverty and homelessness around the globe demand of us all a new direction, one founded on true economic, social, and political justice for everyone. But this justice has a very personal reality for us, not just a political or social one, which is based on two vital principles: simplicity and sharing.

The principles of sharing and simplicity are inspired by loving compassion, kindness, mercy, and a highly refined sensitivity that allows us to see their necessity. This sensitivity is the gift, indeed the grace, of the spiritual life. The more than six billion members of the human family now inhabiting the earth, like all who have preceded us and all who will come after, are part of an interdependent community of sentience and life. This reality cries out to our sense of justice, inspiring us to oppose poverty and homelessness.

The Dalai Lama often observes that we human beings have a universal responsibility for the earth and all its suffering. The truth of this insight I realize more and more in the depths of my own conscience. We all have the task of living a simpler lifestyle that allows resources to become available and distributed more equitably. Simplicity means taking just what we need and nothing more. It translates into living with far less, so that everyone will have something. It requires a process of reducing desires and carefully identifying legitimate needs.

If we change the way we live, if we actually simplify our existence in our time and around the world, then it will be possible truly to share with one another. Sensitive sharing leads us to discern the needs of others whenever we encounter them. As higher sentient beings, we are meant to share with others. Although we may recognize our root biological tendency to horde and fight for our survival, that basic tendency is not what makes us human —overcoming that tendency is. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize the truth simply because of their social conditioning, which blocks them from the awareness of their responsibility to act compassionately all the time, regardless of the situation. By sharing and by simplifying our lives we can restore balance to the system we inherited from our predecessors. We can replace our self-serving culture with a compassionate one that takes into account the interdependent reality of which we are all part.

Street people present us with both a problem and an opportunity: a problem in terms of the immense dimensions of this tragedy, and an opportunity in terms of the possibility of developing our innate loving kindness for them. As long as we ignore the homeless or apply a Band-Aid solution to the symptoms of a much larger disorder in our world, the problem will grow and finally get out of control. The reality of homelessness alerts us to the need to transform the whole global system, to build a new civilization in which this terrible agony of so many no longer exists.

Toward a Permanent Solution

A genuine solution to this massive social ill will necessitate a new order of civilization — a civilization with a heart, a compassionate, kind, loving, and merciful universal social order. In time capitalism will have to be transformed, and this will happen as more and more people wake up to the deeper reality of which we are all equal members. Corporate executives, employees, and stockholders all have the capacity for such an awakening.  It’s only a matter of time — if we have the necessary leadership. Our leadership, particularly with respect to the homeless problem, needs a special kind of guidance, that of our spiritual communities themselves.

We must have a mobilized effort involving all churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples — all the communities of the world’s great religions. Our spiritual leaders are in a position to concentrate the minds of the masses on the great tragedy of homelessness. Just as Martin Luther King Jr., with the help of the churches, was able to coordinate the Civil Rights movement, our spiritual leaders can bring the homeless situation to the forefront. Our spiritual leaders are capable of bringing a new sense of conscience to the popular imagination about the seriousness of this crisis, inspiring a change of direction for our society. What was done in the 1960s and 1970s for civil rights can be done in our time for homelessness and other forms of poverty.

As a monk, a mystic in the world, pursuing my spiritual practice each day, I have awakened to the horrible inequity in the sufferings of the homeless persons I have known for so long. I have realized it is no good depending on an often uneven approach of providing shelters and soup kitchens. We must call on something much more ambitious to transform this problem. We can create such a world, but it demands will and determination; it won’t just happen without the insight, leadership, and the mobilization of a movement.

Contemplatives, mystics, and monastics are by nature countercultural. They are in touch, through desire, vision, and experience, with something ultimate. Their understanding of reality and value arises from the Source.  Their perceptions and estimation of society, of the world, always put them in conflict with the world’s illusions, or more precisely with the illusions most people entertain about themselves, their desires, and hidden agendas.

A monk or mystic contemplative in the mainstream of society is an agent of change, of reform. He or she has a vision of a human world animated by the best qualities of which we are capable, a world where compassion is alive, where love takes precedence over indifference, kindness over neglect, and mercy over oppression. Mystics in the heart of society are a source of radical reform, radical in the original meaning of the Latin root radex, which means going to the root. The reform I have in mind is the most radical of all: the eventual disappearance of cultural and economic selfishness, and their replacement with sharing, compassionate concern, loving kindness, and merciful consideration of all. In such a new world street people will find a real home and the opportunities to cultivate themselves and their God-given gifts, thus allowing their innate preciousness to shine forth.


From A Monk in the World. Copyright © 2002 by Wayne Teasdale. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $22.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657 extension 52 or click here.