real life

'My brother has been homeless for years. When you see him on the street, you know nothing about his story.'

Despite what can be unpredictable weather and an impractical location, the homeless population in my area is growing. I was running an errand with a friend not long ago when we passed a man holding an Anything Helps sign. “Get a job!” she yelled.

Thankfully the window was shut, but I was stunned and my face grew warm.

Perhaps she noticed because then she added, “I just don’t understand why they can’t work like the rest of us.”

I tried to find words. I think I mumbled something about the fact that homeless people getting jobs also relies on businesses willing to hire them.

“McDonalds,” she said. “Anyone can get a job there.”

Then my brain went completely offline. I couldn’t think of how to respond which now seems so lame, because there are some things I would like to have said.

My little brother is homeless and has been for more than two decades. The reasons why he hasn’t and doesn’t work have changed over time and I imagine are at least slightly different for every homeless person without a job. But the subtext of my friend’s statement is really “Why should I give money to someone who’s lazy; who isn’t willing to work for money like I do?”

Formerly homeless people share what you can give to really make a difference. Post continues after video.

And to that I say, her opinion that people who ask for money are freeloaders who could work but choose not to, is based on assumption. It relies on the notion that the two things that shape us into able-bodied adults who can hold down a regular job, nature and nurture, are level playing fields.

And they’re not.

Take nature, genetics. Some of us are born intellectually gifted, some average, and some of us struggle to learn. Some people are born with genetic predispositions towards mental illness, or just plain illness. Some people are born addicted, after having spent nine months tethered to an addicted mother. And some are born from healthy mothers, only to discover that they are wired for addictions of their own.

My brother was a sweet-faced precocious boy with big blue eyes, nine years younger than me. He was a kid that tested even the most dedicated “positive parenting” methods and diagnosed with ADHD by first grade. He “used” everything he could get his hands on: first sugar in copious amounts, then pot in middle school, then in his later teens, drugs. Meth, his favourite, addled his brain and changed him into someone my family and I were scared of. After years of trying to get him into treatment we were relieved when he landed in prison for a few years for stealing a car, if for no other reason than to give his brain a chance to heal and connect to the person we remembered.

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When he was released from prison in his mid-20s he stayed in a pre-release program and did well for a time. He worked at a hotel cleaning rooms and tried studying. He bought a pair of garnet and diamond earrings with his new wages and showed them to me. They were for a girlfriend he could now imagine he might someday have; hope in a little white box. He asked me if I thought a girl would ever forgive him for the things he was still ashamed of. Yes, I said, I think forgiveness is natural when it’s obvious someone is working to become a better version of themselves.

Sobriety and normal adult responsibilities proved difficult for him, especially given that after 10 years of using he knew life on drugs better than life off it. When in pre-release I still saw him use whatever was legal: sugar; espresso; copious amount of it, even at 2 a.m. What he needed was supervision for years, not just a few months. But our system wasn’t set up to provide that close accountability needed and my brother was spit back out into the world and found his way back to drugs…and homelessness.

dramatic portrait of a little homeless boy, dirty hand, poverty, city, street
"My brother has been homeless for two decades." Image via Getty.

There’s another assumption in the question of why homeless people don’t just get a job. It’s the nurture part of the equation, that our family and the community we’re born into are also level playing fields. That racism doesn’t exist. That we embrace and support people who look or behave outside our narrow norms.

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Because aren’t we all born wealthy and beautiful to parents who are mentally sound, adore us and began saving for our upbringing before we were even zygotes?

When you win this particular lottery in life (my friend wasn’t far off of this) it can be puzzling why those pesky homeless people would choose to live on the streets when there are simple solutions that would afford them a regular shower and a roof over their heads.

Homelessness can happen even when you do have all of these benefits in life. My brothers and I came from a middle-class (most years, anyway) family with two educated parents with jobs who loved us. But we also moved away when my brother entered the public school system - and had religious differences from the people around us. And while we met many kind people, trying to fit into 98 per cent of anything when you’re a minority, feeling that you’re different, well, that can be hard to overcome. And because my brother was wired hyperactively from the start, he didn’t fit into the classroom. He did eventually discover a place where he fit: it was with the outsiders and the “bad kids.”

That’s how the journey started for him.

A year or two after my brother left pre-release I received an envelope addressed in his handwriting. Inside was a tiny bit of cardboard, wrapped in toilet paper. It was the earrings with a note:

No girl is ever going to want me. It was stupid to buy these — you should have them.

The next time you see a homeless person, know that they might have family who love them but became exhausted and ran out of hope. Or perhaps even more tragic, they might have absolutely no one who thinks of them. What every homeless person does have is a story composed of the dominoes that lead to homelessness…and chances are that it explains why they aren’t working. I’m not suggesting everyone should put money in the hands of every person holding a sign. Personally, I’d rather most of that money go to the programs working to solve homelessness, or care for homeless people, but that’s an essay for another day.

For all of us who eat and shower regularly with a warm bed at night, we can be thankful that we had enough of the things in both the nature and nurture categories to help get us where we are. We were able to overcome the challenges that came our way.

Twenty years later I still have the garnet and diamond earrings. They are a reminder of the brother I lost, whose body still roams the city streets, his brain so damaged by drugs there is no longer any amount of rehab or prison time that will bring him back home.

This story originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. For more from Megan Regnerus, you can read more from her on Medium here, or visit her website here

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