Opinion True Stories

Should They Be Grateful?

By | Mar 24, 2016

For a couple of decades now, I’ve been fortunate enough to lead a community-based organization that serves and houses people who are homeless. We have literally housed thousands and thousands of people who were formerly homeless on the streets of Southern California.

Many of the people we have helped have shared moving thank you notes with us, have expressed their thanks to our staff and volunteers, and have publicly declared their gratefulness to reporters.

But a small percentage, however, have actually responded adversely by writing critical letters, submitting complaints to public officials, sharing unkind words to our staff. Sometimes our staff members feel a bit dejected over such responses. After all, they’ve spent hours, days, and sometimes months helping people overcome their personal barriers, supporting them when they are down, and helping them find permanent housing. The natural expectation is to hear a simple word of thanks.

So an angry response is unexpected, and at times, disappointing.

After years of encountering such bitter responses, I have had to personally answer the simple question: Should they be grateful?

It is hard to imagine life on the streets.

Imagine being Sally, who for years supported her husband’s career and middle-class lifestyle until he started beating her. After years of being on the wrong end of his fist, her only escape was an undeserved existence on the harsh streets of Los Angeles, hidden from her former spouse’s fury.

Should Sally be grateful?

Sure, we provided her with a safe place to sleep and even helped her get an apartment. But in Sally’s mind, being beaten up night after night, sleeping in the hills of Hollywood, and finally ending up in an embarrassing existence in a homeless shelter with a hundred other hurting people was never warranted. Her natural response was anger, not gratefulness.

Or how about, Daniel? At the young age of 18, he joined the U.S. Army, spending numerous years on violent tours in the Middle East. Fighting for his country, he endured experiencing the death of some of his close Army buddies, snipers taking pot shots at him while on duty, and bombings that still ring in his ears years later.

Upon returning home, he has not slept through a full night, the sounds and images of war still haunting him. He can’t keep a stable relationship because now his natural response to disagreement is rage. His only escape from the ghosts of war is through substance abuse on the streets.

Should, Daniel, who bravely fought for his country, be grateful?

As a reward for his service, does Daniel really deserve spending years on the streets with an addiction to substances that will probably kill him? Sure, we helped him with a federally-funded housing voucher so he can move into an apartment. But should his response really be thankfulness? Thank you for calling me hero, but then letting me become homeless on the streets for years, Daniel could be thinking.

I wonder if we, who are providing the compassion for people who are homeless, have everything backwards. We sometimes feel like those we are helping should be grateful. We think they should send us sweet words of thanks, to make us feel good.

But I wonder if we, who are the caregivers and the donors, should really be the ones who are grateful. Maybe we should be thankful that these people we are helping have endured and overcome personal hell – for some, undeserved hell – more than most people will ever experience.

They are the best of the best of humankind. They represent the best of our human spirit. The spirit to never give up. Not us, who donate a very small percentage of our time and resources.

Maybe we should be grateful.

2 Comments

  1. carl beaumont
    Posted Apr 12, 2016 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    path has been indispensable in helping me regain some self respect. through housing, case management and even my own apartment. Thank God for path!

  2. Lenora Fulani
    Posted Sep 11, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mr. Roberts: I very much appreciated your article: Homelessness: America's Refugee Crises. I am a developmental psychologist and activist located in NYC where the homeless issue is rampant and on top of that there are active plans to close down housing projects that families have lived in for generations. I am the co founder of the All Stars Project which is located in 6 cities and for more than 30 years we have provided quality after school programs for inner city youth and opportunities for their families. And I am leading a fight in the city against the attacks on the people who currently live in the housing projects. My organization is also in Chicago and San Francisco where the poor has been or is currently being displaced. These are very serious issues and very serious times. I would love to speak to you about your work. Take care! And thanks! Lenora Fulani