I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we were brought up to.

-Alice Walker

The Emergency Center for the Homeless on Commerce Street was in an old building with rattling pipes, peeling paint, rats, roaches, drugs and knives. Its residents were cast-offs of society, but as my husband and I volunteered there and got to know them, we found many who met hopelessness with humor, tragedy with kindness, and despair with philosophical musings. We discovered amazing people who, in spite of their hardships, tried to make life better for everyone around them.

Often residents had lost everything because medical conditions had depleted their resources or strength or both. Quentin had been the victim of a violent shooting that left him missing a hand and an eye. He also had Parkinson’s Disease and skin cancer, and was eventually moved to a hospital before being transferred to a nursing home. In spite of everything, he had a great sense of humor and brought laughter to many situations that would make most people cry.

He had severe hallucinations, making him think, for example, that ten people were in the bed with him. So because there was no room, he would roll onto the floor, then call for someone to pick him up. He would think several women wanted to marry him—not an unpleasant fantasy! But when he thought an old enemy was coming after him with an AK-47, he pulled the hospital’s fire alarm. Panic ensued.

My husband and I had a hard time convincing Quentin that what he was seeing wasn’t there. His reaction was to get stubborn and very anxious about needs he felt he had. His roommates began to be fed up with his demands, saying things like, “He’s losing it,” “He’s acting like a jerk.”

When he was admitted to a nursing home, the staff understood his disease. One caregiver explained to Quentin that his brain cells weren’t communicating with each other properly, placing the blame on the sickness rather than on Quentin himself.

To learn more about helping people experiencing homelessness, my husband and I attended a conference on mental health. There we were taught not to say of someone, “He’s a schizophrenic,” but “He has schizophrenia.” In the same way, I have multiple health issues, but I don’t want to be defined by them. I don’t want to be referred to as “the sick woman.”

This perspective changes not only our words but our attitude. Can we separate the person from whatever condition afflicts them, whether it’s mental illness, drug addiction, poverty or disease? Can we find who’s inside and treat that person with respect? If we can look beyond appearances or assumptions, there is a chance of uncovering something good, even beautiful, under a rough or unattractive exterior.

Author and publisher Chelle Thompson writes in InspirationLine,Human beings seldom step outside of themselves to really grasp the needs and fears of others. We often project our own thoughts and beliefs upon strangers, and make judgments based upon how we think they ‘should’ be living their lives.”

Looking past appearances can be hard to do. Often our world is all we know–where we have been, who we have known, what we have done, what we wish to do. This world contains our habits and standards and dreams.  When we see a man sleeping in a doorway or a woman asking for help in a slurred voice, we compare their condition with our world. We may assume there is something wrong with them.

In truth, poverty puts people in different world. The homeless person sleeping in the doorway may not have been able to rest the night before because he was guarding his few possessions. The woman may have an untreated medical condition that affects her speech.

People have suggested that to be tolerant of others, we should walk a mile in their shoes. But can I walk in the shoes of a single mother who is homeless, sick, battling a drug addiction she acquired in the hospital, who has had her children taken from her by Child Protective Services? How can I ever know how she feels?

My shoes are different from hers. And who’s to say mine are better? How would I handle such hardships? In her coping, she may be doing much better than I would.

When my husband and I began volunteering at the shelter, my own preconceptions melted away as I learned the reason this single mother or older man was there. Often the confluence of unfortunate happenings had left them with no place to live and no one to take them in–events that could happen to anybody.

When I asked one man what he had done previously, he said, “I was an auditor, back when I was a person.” He had actually been the overseer of a department of auditors in the military before depression caused him to lose his job and everything he had. He received treatment at the shelter, found a job, and now has his own home again.

I noticed the staff politely addressed those staying there as Mr. or Ms. So-and-so, Sir, Miss, or Ma’am. If we can offer respect, we are bestowing dignity. Dignity helps someone see himself more positively, and that yields hope. Hope gives the will to try and keep trying. In this way, our respect can help someone find a new life.

Quentin’s continuing story shows what can happen when someone is handled with respect.  The severe hallucinations were found to be the result of his medications; when the dosage was decreased, he didn’t see as many strange events unfolding around him. He still behaves oddly at times, but he is accepted at the nursing home. More importantly, he’s happy.

Back When I Was a Person by Caryn Wideman