Recently, in my old hometown in Montana, a man died of exposure. According to news reports, he was a Wal-Mart employee in the town of Miles City, homeless and living in his car when the weather plunged to 27 degrees below zero.
We tend to shrug off the homeless when we see them pushing their shopping carts or holding up signs asking for money. They're mentally ill, we assume, or drug addicts. But I know from experience that a lot of the homeless are like that man in Montana: struggling to make it but not quite able to.
For the 6 1/2 years I was homeless, I never had a shopping cart, nor did I have a mental illness or a drug problem. I was just a regular guy out of work in a poor economy. I did writing work while living out of my pickup truck at campgrounds, but I never made enough to rent an apartment until I hit Social Security retirement age and qualified for low-income senior housing. When you don't have much to start with, it's easy to fall off the edge.
Once, on a bench outside a coffee shop, I ran into a homeless guy I had seen before at a hostel on the California coast when he had a suitcase and was clean-shaven and flirting with women. This time he was dirty, after sleeping in a field. He was panhandling for money, having sold his sleeping bag to buy food.
When I was homeless, I generally spent the winters in the desert. At my then-church in Palm Springs, I used to come across a skinny homeless man who attended services and then asked for money afterward, claiming he needed it to treat an eye problem.
A priest told parishioners not to give him money because he used it to buy drugs. He admitted to me that he did. One day, I read in the paper that he had been found dead, sleeping in the entryway of a drugstore on a cold night.
I met a thin, homeless guy in Palm Desert when he stopped by a chapel lunch to complain. He spent his days collecting aluminum cans, his giant plastic bags filled with cans hanging over the handlebars of his bicycle. Recently, he said, he had stashed some bags behind a dumpster at the chapel's main church to pick up later. But when he returned, his cans had been thrown out by the church. He said he was told never to come onto the property again. I invited him to sit next to me at the lunch and have a free meal. The priests in attendance ignored him.
I never panhandled for money. But once when I was homeless, a wealthy woman gave me some money to check into a motel for a couple of days. Another woman once forced a $20 bill into my hand, even though I told her I didn't want it. She was a saint to me. I never saw her again; I never forgot her kindness.
I've been in an apartment for five years now this month. It took more than three years of being on a waiting list to get my place. Currently, hundreds of people are on the waiting lists for subsidized housing at each of the apartment complexes in my area.
When I lived at campgrounds while homeless, I saw families with children who were doing the same thing. I met a guy living in a boat parked in the desert and a woman recuperating in a tent after cancer surgery. I myself recuperated in my truck from knee surgery after a car accident.
In recent weeks, the new pope, Francis, has been speaking out about poverty. He says he wants a church for the poor. That will take some doing. I am Catholic, and I went to Catholic Charities when I was homeless and couldn't get any help getting a roof over my head. Later, a Jewish organization helped me.
I worry that it's becoming easier and easier to ignore homelessness. My affluent town of Rancho Mirage has low-income housing only because state law mandates it. But although the city is happy to offer sweet deals to developers of high-end businesses, it draws the line at reaching out to the homeless.
Would it be so hard to offer a spot for homeless people to go to during the day for a shower and lunch? The homeless shelters in this long desert valley are relegated to the extreme east and west ends, to North Palm Springs and to Indio, many miles apart. There are no homeless services in between, in the wealthy tourist corridor where people don't want to see the homeless.
As a Christian, I can't help but think about Jesus at this time of year when we celebrate his birth. Lately, I've pondered the story Jesus told about Lazarus, a homeless man who died at the door of a rich man. The man had denied Lazarus even the scraps from his table. When the rich man died, he was sent to hell. He cried out to heaven asking that Lazarus dip his finger in water and put it on his hot tongue to cool it, but he was told by Abraham that would be impossible.
Whether you see that story as metaphor or literal truth, it's worth thinking about.
Les Gapay is a freelance writer in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.