The outside thermometer here at our house reads -3 degrees F (yesterday it was -7). As always when the temperatures dip below zero, I find myself thinking about all the homeless people who live outside without protection from this bitter cold. My thoughts took the usual train ride, which begins with me asking, "What can we do to help the homeless and, more importantly, prevent people from being homeless in the first place?"
In the past, I've come to one very unsatisfying conclusion: "People need to learn how to share more." It is unsatisfying because I know, though people can be very generous and caring, occasional charity is not the whole answer to the problem. Sure, you can hand the homeless guy a dollar or two or donate to a homeless shelter. That's wonderful, but it's not enough. It's not a preventative measure. It won't stop the homeless from streaming into every nook and cranny of the city streets in every major city in the world. It will just keep happening.
My answer to the homeless problem (the same as for any problem that causes suffering) is: 1) Slow down, breathe, relax... 2) See what is here now... 3) Wake up to what is real... 4) Respond with compassion.
To ensure the validity of it really strikes you and sinks into your bones, let me take you on the same train ride I took to get there...
I started by asking myself why people are homeless. There are one or more obvious reasons: Job loss, lack of education/training, mental illness, alcohol or drug addiction... And yes, some live in the streets by choice, but it is not likely to be the norm. How we do stop these from happening, get at the root of it so everybody can enjoy a life with their basic needs being met? It's about cause and effect.
Let's look at just one of these: Job loss. What causes people to lose their jobs? Well, businesses or organizations need to make a profit, and that's not a problem. The problem lies in the growing imbalance between greed and integrity. Employers increasingly hire the minimum number of employees to do the maximum amount of work in the shortest time frame. This means a higher likelihood of more job cuts and downsizing, fewer job opportunities and more stressed out employees. It all leads to job loss. More and more people are quitting their jobs because they are simply emotionally and physically exhausted and stressed beyond belief. Out of my small circle of friends and family, MOST of them are working more than fifty hours a week. Some of them are working sixty or more. Where is the work-life balance in that? If employers really cared about their employees even half as much as they do their profits, things would change for the better. They could act with integrate and still make a nice profit.
What about the other causes? Education and training is easily fixed. Give everyone access to a good education. Mental illness? Provide healthcare and eliminate the stigma attached to mental illness. Alcohol and drug addiction? Provide non-profit recovery centers in every neighborhood and celebrate recovery. And I can't help but wonder if even one of these is fixed, it would positively impact the others. If more of the mentally ill could find treatment, they would not depend on drugs and alcohol to cope with their illness, and they could find and keep a good job.
The atrocity of people living in urine-soaked boxes in every urban alley is perpetuated because so many of us think, speak and act without wisdom. We are deluded. We think we are not connected. But we are connected in myriad ways... by our common humanity, by our actions, by our very breath. Everyone who suffers affects us, either now or later. We cannot continue to hold tightly to our habitual way of life, our hyper-indulgent lifestyles, buying yet another device or entertainment, driving fuel-hungry vehicles, expecting more and more, living with a sense of entitlement instead of gratitude and kindness.
We all need to start by slowing down, stop rushing because it is what someone else expects you to do or because it is your habit. Stop taking on so much that you need to rush. Simplify your life and you CAN slow down. Then look and SEE what is around you, who is around you. Stop being a blind pleasure seeker and find freedom and peace of mind. The moment you see the natural, perfect beauty of life and also respond to the needs of those around you, you will no longer be bored or without purpose, reaching for more and more temporary pleasures to fill you up. Living an ethical, compassionate life is all you need to be happy! It gives back to you more joy than you can imagine. And best of all, it is contagious. Kindness begets kindness. Calm begets calm. Awareness begets awareness. Wisdom begets wisdom.
Open up your eyes! See who you really are. See the world as it is. Educate yourself. Wake up! We are all connected. If we want paradise on earth, we cannot continue to act as we have been. And we cannot continue to walk right past a homeless man or woman bent over against a brick wall. We have to stop, really look at this person and more importantly, respond in a helpful way as you would if it was your own brother or sister. In absolute reality, it IS your brother or sister.