Urban living is a new experience for me after living in the Houston suburbs 20+ years. Walking my dog on the streets around my home reveals new things such as bus stops and homeless people. Not that there weren’t homeless people in the suburbs, but my encounters with them were usually sitting inside my car at a stop light.
My dog is social and wants to meet everyone on a walk. I first encountered Wayne living on a grassy space at the corner near my house. Wayne is a 74-year-old homeless man who has been on the streets for nearly two years. His small amount of belongings are spread out with little piles of trash, food items, clothing, a shopping cart, and trash bag. He looks feeble and weak but manages to occasionally ride a bicycle when he decides to stay at another plot of space down the road. I listen to his story that first day we meet and continue to offer a smile and brief conversation whenever we pass him.
On New Years’ Day, while others were making plans and resolutions for an exciting year ahead, Wayne was pacing and distraught that someone ransacked his area overnight while he was gone. I gathered a few clothes and food items from my house to help replenish what was taken – including a can opener for his one can that was left behind. He was so upset because he owns virtually nothing, but someone stole his things and left behind a mess. He said he tries to keep his space looking neat for the neighborhood so people don’t complain. He takes pride in his things, few as they may be. The one irreplaceable item that’s gone is a wooden frame he made in high school with his mother’s photo inside.
Wayne has taught me a few things along the way:
- Everyone has a story — if you are willing to ask or take time to listen
- “Follow your passion and everything will fall in place” – These words are etched in my mind because I didn’t have a job when I first met him.
- Dogs are a bridge to meet people and give them a reason to smile – My dog, Maisy, spreads joy as we walk the neighborhood. Wayne enjoyed petting her when we passed but he was always cautious she didn’t eat the trash around his area. Most people she approaches at bus stops want to pet her, also. They talk about how cute she is and give her the attention she’s begging for. It makes Maisy happy, and it makes them happy. I would not stop at every bus stop on my own, but Maisy makes sure we do!
When I first met Wayne, I never dreamed I would be working at a nonprofit a few months later that engages and helps Houston’s homeless population. And it’s located near a large homeless encampment that ebbs and flows in size. Now I’m learning about Houston’s vulnerable population through my work. We place people living on the streets in the “homeless” category, but they are disparate in their needs.
In months following, I’ll continue to explore the homeless population, why assisting them is not always so straightforward, and how we can best respond to Houston’s homeless in a way that makes sense for them and the community.