This is not just another article about homelessness; neither is it about the challenges, nor who’s to blame. Every day, much of our nation sees a person experiencing homelessness or someone who is panhandling. And if we don’t see them first hand, we read or hear the latest opinions on what one city is doing compared to another or the latest notion from a group of policymakers. This article isn’t about any of those things.
This is a story about a man who we would call homeless. But was he? Would he have said he was homeless? He lived yards away from a busy four-lane road in Austin, Texas, for more than two decades – almost no one saw him.
Who was he? What made him laugh? Did he like to read? What kind of music did he like? What did he eat? Did he have friends? Family? Did he ever fall in love? When was his birthday?
He chose his home place well and built it with meticulous craftsmanship. Tucked in-between and underneath heavy-growth trees and shrubs, the small, solid lean-to is as he left it – clean with only leaves for debris with intricate locks and pulleys to close the front door and secure it whether he was inside or out.
You have to look hard to find it. And you have to look even harder to see his life laid out in front of you. Like most things, when we open our eyes and allow ourselves to be present, we see.
He had buckets that he likely used to carry water from the nearby stream that could also be used for chairs. A plastic container expertly positioned in a tree held supplies off the ground yet blended into the environment. The inside of his home shows no signs of leaks and the surface is smooth. It is neither warped nor rusted from rain or inclement weather.
He had a cat named Miss Kitty who, according to the metal embossed placard over her gravesite, lived with him for 18 years. Her bowl sits bolted in place to the platform of his home so it wouldn’t blow away or get carried off. Her grave has a statue of a cat precisely bolted in place. How did Miss Kitty die? Was he with her? Did his heart break when his companion was gone?
He made a metal embossed placard that hung over his front door. It’s hard to make out what he called his home, but it had a name and it was established in 1994. And it is there, on top of the sign, that he placed his Vietnam Vet tag (worn almost smooth) along with what is likely a couple of lucky pennies. Where did he get the pennies? After serving our country in war, they must have had deep meaning.
The man in the woods has not been seen for more than two years. Despite heavy traffic buzzing by just yards away, reverent energy envelopes the space – his space. There is no trash – not so much as a bottle top or a shred of plastic. He lived there for 22 years and left not a trace of trash behind.
He loved his home and the woods that protected it. He loved his cat and honored her when she died. He honored the land that he called home which will soon be bulldozed. 22 years of memories and a small gravesite for a cat he loved will soon be shoved aside for the next big thing.
Who was he? What was his name? Was he homeless? Did his life matter? Or when did it stop mattering? When does someone’s life stop mattering?
Thanks for staying open,