A Home with the Homeless
by Richard C. Brown
In 1987, ten years after I had been introduced to Nichiren Buddhism in college, I achieved what I had assumed was an impossible dream by passing the Georgia bar exam and becoming a licensed attorney.
In 1996, as the city of Atlanta was preparing to host the Olympics, I was offered a position as legal director for the Task Force of the Homeless. At first I just laughed at the idea. I had a secure job as an assistant public defender for the city and there was nothing in this offer that suggested a path to the kind of success and recognition that I believed were important. I knew that the city had passed unconstitutional laws targeting the homeless community but I felt no particular responsibility to do anything about this situation myself. I agreed, nevertheless, to at least meet with the director of the task force.
The first thing that I noticed when I walked into the shelter were the women and children lying on the floor. The other thing that caught my attention were the volunteers manning the 24-hour hotline. These two things caused me to reflect deeply. There is a passage from SGI President Ikeda's novel The New Human Revolution that I remember: "It is easy to speak of loving one's fellow human beings. But it is difficult to lend assistance to a stranger who is in trouble. All too often people shun involvement by pretending not to see what's going on.... The realization of ideals such as world peace and love for all humanity starts from the way in which each individual deals with situations and problems in his or her immediate environment."
I had been concerned about the fact that the position wouldn't be able to pay me what I wanted, but here were people working for others for no pay at all. What kind of contribution, I wondered, was I willing to make?
A New Perspective
In December 1996 I took early retirement from the city and started my new job as the task force legal director. My specific responsibility was to develop and maintain relationships with seven homeless people who were plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the city. This meant visiting them where they lived--under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in shelters. Developing friendships with them was no simple thing. It was not something that I could accomplish with an arrogant or superficial attitude. Just being able to tolerate the environment required a journey within myself and a reevaluation of my fundamental attitude. Also, I mistakenly assumed that, because of my education, titles and position, I would be welcomed by all. Early on, however, it was made very clear to me that no one cared how much I knew; instead, they were more concerned with how much I cared about their individual lives.
My perspective on life was undergoing a major change. SGI President Ikeda has often said that it is those who have suffered the most who have the greatest right to happiness. I began to see that it is those who have been deprived of the most precious things in life--love, support, shelter--who truly understand and can teach us the value of these things.
I saw that the homeless are people who have undergone a kind of death. They have shed their identity as regular, productive members of society and been stripped of their ego. To have to eat from garbage, to sleep in stench and amidst constant danger--it is a serious journey to go to that place.
Many people, it is said, are only a paycheck away from being out on the street, and any of us can fail or mess up. Fortunately most of us have support systems, some family to turn to. But for the homeless, a lot of the time it is their families that have victimized or abused them in some way. They have had to come to grips with the fact that the people who are supposed to care the most don't, and that there's no one else who really cares. The help they can get from the government and social institutions is minimal. Eventually, it hardly matters to others, or even to themselves, whether they live or die.
For such people, the idea of getting "back into the mainstream" of an uncaring society where everyone's so busy with their own concerns has little appeal. At least out on the street they know who the people out there with them are, and they can relate to them.
We The People
During the year and a half that I worked with the homeless I met amazing individuals who taught me just how powerful the human condition is. I learned what love and courage mean, and I came to realize that faith is about how we relate to people in our immediate environment. It is about our ability to respect the humanity of another person, whether we know them or not.
Together with other people at the shelter we formed a group called "We The People." Our purpose was to educate others about the true conditions of homelessness, to carry out advocacy and to maintain dialogue among ourselves. We visited schools and colleges and spoke to students, we protested ordinances, marched and held sit-ins. Our efforts resulted in the development of new programs, employment opportunities, the repeal of unconstitutional city ordinances, and an out-of-court settlement in the federal lawsuit.
People are frequently unsure about how to respond to the homeless. Those who know I have worked with the homeless often ask my opinion about whether they should give money to them or not--is it simply supporting their dependence or is it helpful? My answer is to first give them your humanity. Ask them their name, for a start, which so few people ever do. When you relate to each other on the level of humanity they will reveal to you whether they are simply in a hustle or if there is something that they are truly in need of at that moment. People are usually too busy or afraid to engage in conversation, but I'm convinced that the homeless have so much more to give us than we have to give them, if we take the time to speak with them, because they are a reflection of ourselves.
Through my experience I have come to believe that what people require most, and what society requires most, are environments where we can feel respect, where our humanity is acknowledged. I believe that, ultimately, the problems of homelessness are a symptom of a more widespread spiritual homelessness--the loss of humanity in our society and our institutions. The more we can restore humanity, beginning with ourselves, and give our humanity to others, the more we will be contributing to a fundamental change. This is the vision of SGI as I have understood it. Sadly, even those professions that throughout civilization people have looked to as places of refuge for humanity--such as the medical, law and teaching professions--are more and more about the pursuit of profit.
When I was first introduced to this Buddhist practice and learned about the concept of Buddhist compassion, I was inspired to imagine a goal of bringing justice into the hands of youth and individuals in prisons and in homeless communities. In June 2006 I was honored to accept the position of Associate Magistrate Judge in the county where I live. My wish is to make this one more step in the direction of that vision.
[Courtesy, April 2007 SGI Quarterly]