Hear The Homeless - During A Storm

Posted by Rahul Brown on Jan 24, 2017
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A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of the biggest storm to hit the Bay Area in recent memory, a small-but-mighty group of love-warriors and changemakers gathered in Berkeley to offer sandwiches and warmth to those without homes.

We began the day with a short meditation to remember and align with our deepest intentions. For many people, it’s easy to believe we are fundamentally different from the homeless. That our skills, smarts, and savviness keep us from ever having to endure the suffering of living on the streets. Yet when we dig deeply into the reality of the situation, the safety net that protects us from falling too far is our social networks. And I’m not talking about how many friends you have on Facebook or followers on Twitter. I’m talking about the people in our lives who are willing to extend us support, love, and inspiration when we’re both struggling and shining. The people who show up with soup when we’re sick, or stand up to cheer when we succeed. Our parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors, friends, and colleagues have made all the difference in the world for us, and for whatever combination of reasons, that network of deep ties has eroded for those on the street. Hear the Homeless is about remembering and strengthening our deep ties while growing in the capacity to serve others on their journey toward rebuilding their own safety nets. Its about taking one small step toward knowing that ultimately all we need in life for our most real security-- insight, love, and wisdom-- already resides in each one of our hearts.

Personally, the day was reminiscent of another rainy day nearly a dozen years ago. July 1st, 2005 was the tail end of 100 hours of continuous monsoon rain that had put 20% of the state of Gujarat under water and made 175,000 newly homeless citizens. I was told that more rain had hit Ahmedabad in that period than any prior year since the British started measuring rainfall more than a hundred years prior, a record that has been broken several times again since 2005. Gujarat was experiencing perhaps the first big storm worsened by climate change.  Amidst all this, I was witnessing an even more awe-inspiring and humbling flavor of Jayeshbhai's loving heroics up close. Among the many acts of round the clock hands-on disaster relief, he literally rescued babies from flood waters, all with lightness and laughter that instantly made these vulnerable families feel safe despite losing nearly everything, including family members. That morning also happened to be the 1 year anniversary of Nipun & Guri’s wedding, so Jayeshbhai decides we’re going to feed all the hundreds of people who live in make-shift huts on Ring Road as an anniversary gift to them. Of course, he would have done this anyways, but by remembering this uniquely remarkable couple, our gratitude for the life and values they’ve chosen would flow through to those who are still able to smile despite the struggle of extreme third world poverty.

Comparing our sandwich delivery in the rain to cooking warm food to hundreds washed out by monsoon flooding might be unfair. Yet in the West, we’re all a little bit too comfortable and so a little bit too unwilling to take real risks and get uncomfortable. When that becomes a barrier to letting ourselves grow, we’ve made a bad deal for our personal and collective future. My heart was full of gratitude for the sweet camaraderie of discomfort in being the change we all want to see in the world.

From the outset, our intention was blessed by several super inspiring gifts. Nirali and Samir had a schedule conflict, but still stayed up late the night before hand-making the hummus used in our sandwiches, and heroically showing up for a just-in-time delivery at the height of the storm. Nandini had a dance performance later that day so couldn’t join for the entire event, but still did a 2 hour round-trip drive just to help make some sandwiches. Jina brought our awareness to the suffering intrinsic in Western non-vegan diets, and ushered us into an experiment in gently offering food in a more holistically kind way. Ellen was in town for a short time from her post-doc studies at UW Madison, and seamlessly brought awareness to the connection between trauma, health outcomes, and potentiality for downward spirals into homelessness. Gen’s smile carried the vibe of the Vipassana center on perhaps her first adventure of this type. Neha brought the gift of the the smallest kid to ever go out on HtH, little sweet Sejal. John came with Ananda, who has a practice of gleefully spreading small and surprising treasures in her wake. Christian seemed to have his sabbatical year in the Manav Sadhna ecosystem fresh on his mind and flowing through his heart. And Asha made the task of hosting while taking care of 3 babies (her husband being baby #3 :-) ) look easy with her usual warmth and grace.

Given the active rain and small children participating, we decided to start with sandwiches, fruit, and drinks at the Berkeley Men’s Shelter. As we served meals and sat down to eat together, I noticed a definite contrast between the shelter folk and street folk. Gen captured it best in her reflection:
All of the men seemed to express shyness. I can't help but wonder if generosity is something that they rarely experience. I'm grateful that as friends we can provide this small gesture of kindness to those less fortunate. I'm also grateful for the opportunity to face my uneasiness in interacting with the homeless.

Ellen recorded some other take-aways:
Making a connection with another human being is a sacred exchange of giving and receiving. Giving our presence and full-hearted listening to receive another’s story and all of the challenges and triumphs that illustrate the contours of their journey create a meaningful connection that is mutually rewarding and healing. It helps to bring us out of our own sense of isolation to extend beyond our comfort zone and reach out to another human being from one heart to another. These are simple gestures that do not take much time or effort, but can provide sustenance and a stepping stone that was perhaps not there prior to the encounter. One such recipient shared his story of being able to at long last receive the essential support to find housing before his section 8 coupon expired and the gratitude of not having to do it alone anymore. His sharing made the excursion all the more memorable.

We ended up with a lot of extra food after the shelter and so decided to do some meal deliveries in the rain. Our first pass was around Martin Luther King Jr Civic Center Park, where we collectively met a couple of surprising characters. One group found a middle-aged Indian man living on the streets, shattering the notion that affluence in the Bay Area Indian-American community is either universal or protective against homelessness. Another group found an older man using city wifi in the dry entry arch of a building working on the final year of his PhD. His dissertation involves a comparative study of the concept of the death process across various world faiths, a dark yet apt area of study for a sexagenarian homeless man on the streets of Berkeley.

Finally, we made our way to the ‘First They Came For the Homeless’ encampment in South Berkeley. This a a group of substance-free homeless folks who are attempting to work out a deal from the city where they are simply given space to camp. Much like those who live on streets in every part of the world, even the homeless of Berkeley are subject to being periodically and forcibly relocated, often with the loss of the few personal belongings they have and at increased risk to their health. This group even had one amongst them on the ballot for mayor in the recent elections. Yet we found the group to be struggling to maintain unity, even in the face of such deep shared struggle. I left feeling both compassion for the difficulty in organizing within such a challenging situation, and gratitude for the presence and harmony of many friends working to make a better world.

Somewhere in the midst of the storm and the shelter, my daughter picked up a nasty bug which spread to both my son and wife. Barely recovering from that, we picked up a second wave of illness that rippled through the family such that we’ve been mostly ill or recovering since the storm-- and hence the delay in writing this post. Yet without a doubt, we would have done it all over again, and more events shall follow.

May we all find the courage to be uncomfortable enough for our hearts to grow, and our brothers and sisters to be uplifted!    

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