Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity operates a home improvement thrift store called the ReStore. Two men volunteering in our store are homeless and I have spent some time trying to figure out why they are here; after all they are not paid for their service.
If you ask them how to find something they will direct you. If the rest rooms are clean they are responsible. If you need help carrying something to your car they are there to help. Do you want to know how you can tell they are homeless? The answer is you can't.
I think it is important to foster a connection for a better understanding of people who are struggling and each year around the holidays I look for a touchstone for understanding them. The idea came from a quote I read years ago by Herman Melville, "A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things."
I often hear people talk about the less fortunate with terms like, "lazy," "corrupt," "cheating" and so on. Do these character traits exist in the poor and homeless? Yes. Is it universal? Absolutely not.
I am guilty of trying not to make eye contact with the homeless when I am walking down the street and I have observed that this response is almost universal. We walk by and make every effort to ignore their existence. We are hoping they don't ask for money and we don't like to remind ourselves of their plight, especially during the holidays.
So why do homeless people volunteer in our store? I think it is because it offers relief from being invisible. For several hours people treat them like they remember being treated before they were homeless. When they first start volunteering you observe that they do not make eye contact. I think it is due to the fact that they are not accustomed to it. Over the course of a few days they develop it again.
We encourage them to take warm shelter at a homeless shelter, and yet they choose to sleep outdoors. We close the store, and they walk out into the winter darkness. We breathe a sigh of relief when they safely return the next day.
Today these men looked into someone's eyes, and one of our customers possibly returned the glance. They did not know at the time what "hard things" these men know.
It is the holidays. You may not know "hard things," but let's all take a break from mouthing "hard words" at the poor for a few weeks. Maybe that sadness in a glance from a stranger's eyes during the holidays has more meaning and depth than we understand.
Edward R. Blake is executive director of Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity.