Opinion

A light to guide me home | Walter Backstrom

I once spent five days living, sleeping and eating with the homeless.

I talked to Metro bus drivers, the homeless and people who work with the homeless. It was one of the most gut-wrenching and moving experiences of my life. An experience I will never forget.

The first two nights I spent riding Metro bus route 174, also known as the Motel 6 on wheels. The 174 is one of the longest routes in King County. It starts in Federal Way and goes to downtown Seattle, then back to Federal Way for a total travel time of two hours and 45 minutes. That long time frame makes the 174 an attractive place for the homeless to safely sleep.

The run ends at 5:30 a.m., forcing the homeless riders to exit the bus. Some end up sleeping on the bus-stop bench. I departed with the rest of the weary passengers, went to Denny's, and wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew.

On the third night, I slept at the airport. When the police did a so-called homeless sweep around 3 a.m., I was told I could not sleep in the airport and had to leave unless I was boarding a flight or meeting a passenger.

The last two nights I spent in a Kent shelter, one of the few in Southeast King County. I was given a blanket, a mat and a meal. However, I was unable to sleep because of the excessive snoring and other nocturnal actions of my new roommates. I did not shower during my five days of homelessness, because when you are homeless, there is no place to take a shower.

I was surprised to learn the many different reasons people are homeless. In my final analysis, there are two types of homeless people: Those who are homeless by choice, and those who are homeless by circumstance.

Those who are homeless by choice are the ones on the side of the street with a sign that says, "God bless, will work for food." The ones who are homeless by circumstance are those who are mentally ill, women fleeing abusive relationships and people who keep making wrong decisions that lead to the streets.

I felt the emotional impact of being homeless on the third night of my journey. I was at the airport and the police said that I had to leave. I left and got on the trusty 174 headed to Federal Way. The closer I got to my destination, the more I was overwhelmed by a sense of dread and sadness.

When we got to the end of the bus line, I exited the bus and looked around in the darkness. The night was still, and around me all I could see was an empty parking lot where earlier that day hundreds of people bustled about, smiling, leading their lives. Now, they were gone. They had gone home, that special place you miss when you do not have one.

The emptiness frightened me. I told myself that this would be finished in two days. It lessened the fear somewhat. I prayed that the sun would rise and everything would be OK. The birds would awaken, begin chirping, and I would feel safe again.

With the end of my journey nearing, I began to wonder what I would say. How could I explain what it was like, and what my experiences had been?

We Americans are a generous people, but we are also a very judgmental people. Sometimes we judge the homeless harshly. I heard stories of incredible tragedies and other stories of pure fabrication.

I think what I really learned about was the human spirit. How utterly incredible it is even in the midst of all this suffering, I found a light that is in all of us, and that is powered by hope.

The challenge is not to allow that light to be extinguished by our circumstance, because there, but for the grace of God, go I.

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