September 16, 2006

Funny, how fickle fate falls

Michael started off at Cal Poly as a triple major, acquiring credits in political science, history and liberal arts over the course of 5 years. He paid his own way through college, despite having affluent parents and he was determined to do things on his own. His pride might have cost him in the long run, but his strong sense of independence and led him to his current unique situation and changed his life for the better. He had big dreams of moving to My State and becoming a manager of a major hotel, "just another white guy moving in and taking over," he added jokingly. After graduation, he left his friends and family with a mountain bike and $400 in his bank account to begin his life anew.

He applied for jobs all throughout town. As an articulate college graduate with strong grades and an excellent resume, it should have been easy for him to find a job. He was involved in student government representing the small liberal arts community at Cal Poly. His friends regularly came to him asking for help with their papers. Still, he had no luck getting a job.

After a few weeks of job searching, he finally found a job working at Jamba Juice. Ironically, his friends back home in San Luis Obispo founded the company that he found himself working at... and he kept grinding away at his job applications. After a year or so, he found himself another job at Sunset Grill. Just a few weeks into his job, he developed a pounding headache and he called in sick to work. Two days later, he was in the hospital and unbenownst to him, he was fired from his job. It turned out that he had a pituitary tumor and he had no health insurance.

Queen's Hospital treated him well and they removed the tumor. Lucky to be alive, he found himself with new problems. He was going to get kicked out his apartment in a week and he had no job, no money, nowhere to go. He applied for jobs, but still, no luck.

On a Tuesday night at 2:00 am in the morning, he found himself in front of the Institute of Human Services. The homeless shelter's caretaker was hesitant to let him in. Dressed as he was, with neatly pressed slacks and a collared shirt, talking the way that he did with a polished educated voice and looking the way that he did (white and privileged,) he might have run into problems. It was recommended that he go back to the area that he came from and find a place to stay. That bike ride back was a tough one... he suddenly saw the people sprawled out underneath trees in the shady parks, in the back alleys of paradise. These were people that he had once thought disparagingly of. "Clean yourself up, shave and get a job!" These words now had a biting sense of shame since it was something that had happened to him.

Michael was too ashamed to contact his family. He did not want to be thought of as a failure. He would pull through on his own... and because of this decision, he became a stronger person. He learned a lot about himself. He learned more about life from his fellow homeless than he did in college.

He found himself an alcove behind a church to sleep at. And it began to rain. For more than forty days straight, it poured rain of biblical proportions. Yet he was grateful for the rain... it limited his chances of being discovered by people and removed from the church grounds. He read the newspaper everyday and learned about other homeless people getting kicked out of Ala Moana park. How they had no where else to go, but a few churches had been sheltering them until a more permanent solution could be found.

A janitor had found him sleeping in the alcove one night and gave him a blanket, for which he was grateful.

Michael had fallen in between the cracks. Down on his luck, he had to stand in long lines for food alongside other homeless people in downtown... as cars of young healthy people whizzed by, talking on their cell phones and sipping their morning coffee.

A few weeks later, the janitor struck up a conversation with him about the Ala Moana homeless. "I read about that in the newspaper," he said. "They are all staying at Central Union Church, right?" The janitor laughed and gestured around. "This IS Central Union Church." For weeks, he had been sleeping, starving and freezing outside while there was a bunch of homeless who showed up every night to sleep, eat and keep warm inside the church!

He was part of the initial exodus that was transferred to the homeless shelter just a few blocks from My Medical School.

A man from a church group recognized Michael's potential and he was soon hired to work in the program Helping the Hungry Have Hope.

And that's what brings me here today. He said, wrapping up his story for our class.

I was touched. Here was a man who did nothing wrong, yet he still found himself quickly abandoned by society. He could have died in California, lacking health insurance, but he didn't. He could have given up on life, but he kept trying and trying and trying.

He was the same age as all of us... he could have been a medical student. We could have been homeless. I remember in high school how I wanted to be homeless. My ideas were closer to "hoboism", riding trains and finding oddjobs, instead of the harsh, insecure realities of homeless life. Worrying about where your next meal will come, whether or not you could find a safe place to sleep for the night, trying to avoid becoming a victim of violent crimes.

Homeless people have parents who wonder what happened to their children.
Homeless people have lives and goals no different than our own, but they lack the means to achieve many of them.
Homeless people have sob stories to beat anything that someone who has job security and a home could possibly say.

They need to know that people care. Then, they can be helped to help themselves. They can be given a sense of purpose and be proud of their responsibilities. It all starts with someone to listen to their story, learn more about their priorities and be nonjudgmental about their values.

I'm sure Michael will contribute great things to society and he can give hope to others like himself.

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