We’ve all seen “Them.” Some look ragged. Some look confused. Some talk to themselves. Some are asleep on the cold sidewalk. Some yell at anyone who attempts to engage them in conversation. Many have emotional and mental challenges beyond our comprehension.
Some push their worldly belongings in their grocery cart. Everything they own. In a grocery cart. Most don’t iron their clothes, or even wash them regularly. If you have spent time in the downtown area of Colorado Springs, you have seen them. You probably avoided making eye contact and might have even crossed the street just to stay clear of them.
In one sense, they are just like us. They are military veterans; mothers and daughters; sons and fathers. They have families. They have had traditional jobs in the past, have owned, or rented homes, maybe even sipped a latte at Starbucks with their friends. But then, something happened. Now, they are not like us anymore. As you pass those homeless people, you might not believe you have much in common with “Them.” You’d be wrong. We have one very important fact in common: We all have a story. Those of us on social media are used to sharing “our story” with the world. Heck, some even overshare on a daily basis. But, what about our citizens who don’t have a home and most likely, no smartphone, or Facebook app? How do they tell their story and to whom? What would they post, if they could?
I wanted to give “them” a chance to tell “us” their story. So, I headed to downtown Colorado Springs in search of anyone who would share their unique story with me. I purposely went on a cold and miserable day. My smartphone Dark Sky app told me it was 19 degrees, with a Feels Like of 4 degrees. I approached a group of four, huddled together trying to stay warm. All were wearing masks and were obviously cold. I know I sure was! They were instantly skeptical of me, which I understood. I told them what I was doing, that I wanted to hear and write their stories. They weren’t sure why I would want to do this. “Nobody cares about my story,” said the older lady of the group. A man, looked to be in his 40s, said his story “ended long ago” and didn’t “want to rehash the past cuz it will never change.” The other two just kind of ignored me, which was fine. I didn’t want to disrespect them, so I moved on to Acacia Park looking for anyone willing to tell me their story, when I saw an intimidating man standing near one of the tables there. He had four bags, all stuffed to overflowing.
He was bundled up in well-worn layered clothing, sported a Grizzly Adams beard and was very unapproachable. So ... I approached him. I introduced myself, told him what I was doing, and he too told me he didn’t want to “rehash” why he was living on the street downtown. He said his name was “Taylor.” I was impressed with his professionalism and command of the English language. I wondered why he was homeless? We stood there and talked for an hour. I learned that he is 38 and has been living on the streets of downtown for over two years. That he is waiting for his Social Security to get “straightened out” so he can get back to the traditional life of a house with four walls. He told me his parents live in the Springs, but that they “don’t get along.”
Then, something profound happened. The more we talked, the more Taylor seemed to enjoy his freedom from debt and the pressures that society brings to bear. He said he had met “many, many, kind people” while living on the streets. “I have learned that the race for material things doesn’t really play into what matters. I see these people stressed trying to pay their bills and buy things and not really enjoy their lives. Just like my parents. Life is short and these things don’t really matter anymore,” he said. I wonder if you and I can we say that?
Does the stuff we work for to buy really matter? I asked how he eats, where does the money come from? “I like to hike a lot and I spend time looking for items that people have lost, like jewelry in the grass at the park. I have found many items and I sell them,” he told me. When I offered to buy him a meal, he looked offended and declined. As we were wrapping up our conversation, he told me knew many who had breast cancer, or who had died from this evil disease. He told me to continue my mission of preventing breast cancer. Wow. Here is a homeless man, in subfreezing temperatures, encouraging me to keep up the good fight! He told me to have a “great day,” I said ‘Ditto,’ and asked him what he was going to do the rest of the day? “I’ll probably go for a hike and just enjoy the beauty of Pikes Peak! It’s not that cold, plus, it will be in the 50s in the next few days.”
According to the most recent study, there are 1,116 people identified as homeless in El Paso County. Taylor is but one of those and while he might look unapproachable, he is anything but. I am honored to have met Taylor and will always look for him when downtown. So, the next time you are at Acacia Park and see a man who fits Taylor’s description, you might consider saying “Hey” to him. You will be a better person for doing so.
So, tonight, when you head to your warm bed in your heated home, remember Taylor, sleeping outside somewhere. But, whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for him. No, that will offend him! And let’s remember, especially during this weird time in our country, that we are the same. We might live in a house with four walls, drive a fancy car or wear a gold watch, but that does not make us any more valuable to God, or anyone else. We need each other. Our stuff just doesn’t really matter. People do.
Rick Baker is the executive director for The Becky Baker Foundation, based in Colorado Springs.