We see them on traffic islands and city sidewalks, in parks and parking lots, many times asking for cash. For some, the homeless can become invisible. In San Bernardino County, Bobbi Albano decided one of those people might have something to teach her.
By: Bobbi Albano
I was putting gas in my car when the homeless man approached me, offering to wash my windows. I hesitated. What would he use the money for? I said yeah, but then I said: "You can do something better than wash my windows... why don't you tell me your story?"
It seems to me when people aren't where they want to be in life, there's a reason. They may have made some bad choices or faced nothing but bad choices, that luckily, I've been spared. No matter. You can learn a lot by listening to someone's story.
So we made a lunch date for the next day. I met him at Subway and bought him a sandwich. By the look on his face, you would've thought I'd taken him to a four-star restaurant! The everyday bounty of meat and cheeses and vegetables amazed him. "Wow, you can get anything you want on a sandwich here," he said.
We sat down and we talked. His name was Joe. At 61, he'd spent nearly half of his life on the streets.
He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, with his mom, dad and three brothers. His dad was a drunk and wife beater. When he was only five, Joe's mom and dad would fight. It'd scare him so bad all he could do was run to the window and scream for help. At five, he thought he should have been able to protect his mom, but he didn't. He still blames himself, you know, the way kids do when they witness horrifying events they can't explain or control.
Joe's dad left soon after that. His mom was poor and had to work. Joe and his brothers were left at home all day.
So Joe started drinking when he was thirteen. And after a few years, he started using met. He ended up in jail several times. His last arrest got him sentenced to a drug treatment program. He's doing better now, living in a sober-living home in San Bernardino.
But half of his social security income pays the rent, leaving little for groceries, gas or cigarettes. That's what Joe panhandles money for, basic stuff we take for granted.
Everyone has a story, and if you don't know it, it's easier to think of people as dishonest, or dismiss their failures as deserved. But Joe didn't deserve his fate and I am not absolved of any responsibility to help him and all the other Joes. Stories matter. Unless I know their story, I can't judge them.
I talked to Joe one time after that. He says he's still sober and things are going well for him. Maybe with a little help, maybe Joe's story does have a happy ending.