As people in America and around the world are being told to shelter in place in response to the rapid spread of Covid-19, the unhoused remain exposed, without access to shelter, medical care, and are losing access to food and places to wash hands or shower. Some government officials have promised hotel vouchers or trailers, but they have been stalled, and are not reaching local municipalities. Some people among the unsheltered communities are frantic, others are becoming hopeless. People are very scared. In the past week, I’ve personally worked with families with children who had nowhere to go but the street (who thankfully are now being sheltered by a local non-profit), and a person with cancer who still has nowhere to go.
In the past few months I’ve jumped on Nextdoor a number of times to support others in my community who were active in finding solutions for the local homeless population. I’ve seen neighbors threatening other neighbors with torches and pitchforks for helping people like the man shown in this poster. These neighbors might say, “Good riddance!” to the present situation facing the homeless in the time of the pandemic. It’s sad to see and understand the effects of what they cannot see.
This behavior does nothing to make communities safer or more desirable, not for the housed, nor for the unhoused. Instead, we need to hold each and every person tenderly, and learn each story. From the story, we can begin to carefully unravel the pain, the abuse, the addictions, the mental illnesses, yes, and also the physical illnesses and disabilities, the lack of available housing, problems in the job market, and trauma from being a victim of crime. There are so many compounding reasons why people become unsheltered. When we turn our backs, and allow it to be a death sentence, we are not participating in justice. We can only come to the truly just outcome through love.
To be a part of justice through love, reach out to your local leaders now, and make sure that the unsheltered are no longer losing access to food and hygiene. See that resources that help the community are distributed to all communities, that the unsheltered in your community aren’t ignored. Get involved personally by finding out where you can donate supplies, and people you can team up with to advocate. And share this article with others.
The man in this picture is Shawn, and his story was given to me by a friend of his. It is being shared here, along with is image, with his permission.
Shawn has had a decade-long battle with homelessness, and he grew up in the area in which he is now homeless. He was once attacked at his campsite by two men, one with a knife, the other with a gun. He fought back. The gun went off and narrowly missed him. He was able to knock it out of the man’s hands and kick it away. He survived the attack with multiple stab wounds. He made it out of his encampment and to the street, where he walked a half-mile, until he found someone who called 911. The week after, his beloved pet dog was killed in an accident. She had a litter of puppies, which Shawn tried to save, but they were too young, and also died without the mother. Shawn became withdrawn and angry, even with his friends, who feared he was lost. “He was devastated and blamed God for everything that had happened to him. He was done,” said his friend.
Two years ago, his friend knew of another dog with a litter of puppies. She chose one and gave it to Shawn for his birthday. That dog, Blue, is in this portrait of Shawn, and the two are inseparable. His friend says the Blue brought Shawn back, “to us and himself. He came out of isolation and anger melted away with the love that puppy brought him.” His friend describes him as “humble, simple, with a big heart, and a lot of love to give.” She says he protects other unsheltered people selflessly, doing things to help and support them to the point of running himself down. He refers to them as his “family.” She says that his faith has also returned and she and others in the encampment talk about faith and God openly. During the last few months, Sean and others with him have had to move encampments four times, and the anger of area residents who don’t want the homeless near them has left him feeling broken. He smiles, but even the smile shows the pain.
This poster of Shawn is part of a new series of work, “Tenderly,” which is about holding all of life with care, attention, and wonder. – Kim Vanderheiden