Gaku Homma, Nippon Kan Kancho
The homeless meal service on December 20th, 2009 marks the end of our 19th year of service to the homeless at the Denver Rescue Mission. This coming January we will begin again for our 20th year.
When we began this project I was only 40 years old; still young, strong and powerful. I can’t hide the fact that these days I move a little slower and I have had much more time to reflect on all of these passing years. My understanding about my relationship with our homeless guests has changed with the passing years. Today anyway, the most obvious change in our homeless guests is that most of them are younger than I am.
When I was younger, I couldn’t understand the life of the homeless. Now with more years of my own life experience, my view of life has broadened and I feel I can understand them better. It is not that I condone the choices that the homeless have made in their own lives, I still have my own opinions on that, but right or wrong, good choices or bad, my first purpose is to feed the hungry.
If busy, for the last 19 years, we usually serve from 250 to 300 meals at our meal service at the Denver Rescue Mission. Beginning this summer, these numbers have been on the rise. In October and November, we served over 400 meals and our normal service of two meals per night was raised to four. This December’s meal service served only about 300 meals due to the availability of holiday meals put on by other groups and organizations in the area. The pantry at the mission is filled with cookies, proof I guess of the holiday spirit of our community. So for this week at least, most of our Denver homeless seem to have enough to eat. It is the same every year. December is the month for charity and the coffers are always full this time of year. It is the many months that follow December that are the problem as the donations and gifts fall off after the holidays and most of the community returns their attention to their own busy lives. I think it would be better for everyone if organizations donated a little bit every month to the homeless instead of just once a year; better for those giving as well as on the receiving end.
The homeless we see today at the mission do not look like homeless people in the traditional sense. We sometimes call them our “Starbucks Homeless”; the ones that carry cell phones and i phones to the meal services at the mission or look like someone you would see in line for a latte, not a free evening meal. Last month we had one gentleman that wore a very large set of headphones during dinner so that he could watch his DVD player while he ate. This was technically against mission rules, but when staff reminded him of this he replied, “I am watching a movie about the gospel.” To which, there could not be much of an objection.
I have spent 19 years with the homeless and am fairly well known in homeless circles on the street. Lately it seems that the older, “professional homeless” I used to be familiar with are disappearing. The “professional homeless” I refer to where more street philosophers than today’s homeless, people who had chosen the streets over a regular life and had their own sense of pride, honor, ethics and manners. These special men and women are not as present at the mission as they use to be.
15 years ago, there were a lot of homeless that were Viet Nam Vets. They lived in and out of the shelters and really seemed to take the time to reflect on their lives; their pasts and their futures, and many of them gathered themselves together enough to re-enter society as productive members. These were my “role model homeless”. Most of them have now all but disappeared.
This past year, not only among my students, many people have been laid off from their jobs. On one hand the worsening economy has had serious effects on people’s lives, while on the other hand, one of Denver’s most highly acclaimed sushi restaurants has been hosting record breaking crowds of patrons. An odd dichotomy.
I went recently to this sushi establishment that seats about 200 customers and the manager told me that it was not unusual to seat two to three times that number of customers per night. Some of the clientele I noticed looked middle aged and successful, but most of the clientele seemed under 45.
I sat at the sushi counter, slowly working on a modest order of sushi and watched the sushi orders being passed from chef to waiter to serve in the dining area. Trays of o-toro (fatty tuna) at $10.00 a piece continually passed near me as the swamped waiters hurriedly rushed the freshly made sushi to awaiting customers.
As I sat at the sushi bar I thought of the people in this city that were living under the bridges on this cold and snowy evening; a completely different word from the one I sat watching around me. Such a difference in life circumstances in the same city I found puzzling.
I looked around at the guests at the sushi bar that were 45 and older. People looked like they had or used to have families, were educated, had access to medical care, had nice houses and were financially responsible. More and more in recent months, I see people this same age and what looks like similar backgrounds at the homeless meal service at the mission.
In these recent months of recession, some people have been lucky enough to be laid off from companies that offer them a severance packages or they have secured savings themselves. More often however I have heard of the less fortunate who find themselves without a job and nothing to fall back on. Those without benefits are in a more perilous situation and more likely to end up in the service line at the mission.
Even more at risk in these economic times are the illegal immigrants from neighboring countries that work in the lowest positions of employment in the US economy. In a time of high unemployment, efforts to control the job market for Americans means reinforcing efforts to deport illegal immigrants from the US.
There can be unanticipated side effects from rededicating interest in deporting those that serve on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. There is a loss of revenue from the money they spend as consumers in this country for one, and it is also difficult to find American educated college graduates to harvest fields in the hot sun for another; no one wants to do these jobs. This is a difficult issue with many sides, but we can’t overlook the effects of the actions we take and some of these effects might not be beneficial to anyone. Efforts to adjust unemployment numbers in this area only forces people farther underground without a way to earn a living wage. This in turn causes more problems and expense, legally for processing crime and socially for serving the unsupported.
As I listen to the news, and see the world around me, I feel like we must prepare for more new homeless in the future to come.
Today more and more people are finding themselves surprisingly out of a job; where only a few months prior they were living the American dream, they now find themselves possibly facing the streets. These people are not the “professional homeless” and don’t know their way around the system. They don’t know which buildings they can sleep in, which alleys have warm air ducts to stay warm or which restaurants leave good left-overs in their trash bins. Things they never imagined they might need to know about are suddenly a stark reality staring them in the face.
As a business owner, technically savvy, fresh, younger workers available at a lower wage might be more desirable today than a senior manager that might not be quite as up on all of the latest technology and demands a higher salary. With the budget cuts imposed on businesses these days this is understandable. Compared to other countries and other cultures however, the United States does not seem to appreciate the value of experience and time on the job.
As human resources, employees cannot be measured only by what they are technically able to produce or the wage they can be hired for. We must understand that there is a big difference in value of what the young might have learned through the internet and what someone with more experience might understand through long years of effort and experience. It is not even a fair comparison; the product might be close to the same but the process is completely different; and nothing can replace the value of experience.
I have experienced the culture in many countries and in my opinion, in many parts of the world, if you want to do any kind of business whether it be diplomatic or economic with people with different customs and religious backgrounds you need to have the interpersonal skills to be able to meet face to face and eye to eye. I fear that young Americans with more technological training than personal experience or skills will have a very difficult time in our future world at large.
In many countries TODAY, not a hundred or a thousand years ago, any negotiation, any business deal or relationship begins by sharing food or drink together with long talks in great detail about children, family and other personal interests. Maybe by a third cup of tea, the subject of business might be addressed if the parties involved are comfortable. This simple custom is still critically important in many parts of the world and can be understood by veterans of the real world with business, travel and human communication experience. These are skills that are learned through experience and accomplishment, they are not something you can learn from the internet or in a one-day seminar. We are in danger of replacing experience with technology and it is a cold wind that is blowing our seniors to the door.
There are still many countries in our world where nothing can be accomplished without direct human communication. Chinese, the Arabic Middle East and other Asian cultures for example have histories that are centuries long that rely deeply on personal face to face communication. A young inexperienced American technocrat might be treated graciously at their negotiating tables but the deals will not be forthcoming on this international stage.
This December I spent a few days in Japan. I usually visit Japan a couple times of year and every time I visit, one of the most surprising changes for me is the advances in cell phone use and technology. The technological advancements are more understandable; they get more high-tech every day, but even more surprising to me as the fact that EVERYONE constantly has a cell phone in their hands these days!
In the “old days”, everyone walked around with a cell phone held up to their ear. Nowadays, everyone walks around with a cell phone held up in front of them like they are holding a compass.
They no longer talk on their cell phones, they are reading, writing emails, using navigation programs, surfing the web, playing games or even watching TV!
Walking into a crowded train station in the middle of Tokyo, I stood and watched as the masses of people as they hurried by. Even walking, many of them were performing tasks on their cell phones as they passed. It seemed like the entire population must be well connected and educated, they are in such constant contact with what the world-wide-web has to offer, but I noticed as I watched people passing by, that no one was dealing with the world immediately surrounding them. In reality they seemed to be running away from their actual daily life; shutting out the real world around them.
After boarding a train, 8 out of the 10 people sitting nearby immediately pull out their cell phones and disappear into their own worlds. I watched as one young man fell asleep with his phone held in position in front of his face. Watching everyone, it made me at first feel like there was something wrong with me; I had no cell phone in front of me…
As I sat on the train, my mind wandered. In the future I worried that Japanese people will lose the ability to talk to people face to face. I worried that interpersonal skills will completely disappear and communication even between people standing next to each other will be done by text or email; losing all emotional content and the expression of human experience.
Maybe someday the people in Japan will communicate like robots and the exchange of emotions will become obsolete. Maybe someday they will lose the ability to speak at all and their mouths will be used only to take in food. Maybe their mouths will change shape, making them quite unattractive to look at and people will have to cover their mouths with masks in public. Maybe… this has already started…
Human communication, looking directly at the person you are talking to, noticing their eyes, the tone of their voice, their body language and hand gestures, all of these expressions of how we feel and what we are experiencing as human beings is an important essence of our lives. All of humanity share the experience of the joy of laughter, the pain in tears of grief, the warmth of a smile, or expressions of pain or hunger; communications we all can understand even without words. This basic component of human communication and understanding cannot be expressed through high-tech relay.
As the train pulled into the next station I watched as groups of end-of-year office party revelers ran to catch the last local train home. It amazed me that even a little drunk and sleepy they stillheld their phones out in front of them. Even in their condition, not one of them dropped their phone. I imagined that any moment, one of them might actually get sucked into the phone like a poltergeist.
I did not imagine these things because I too had had one too many, I really was beginning to wonder…
Finally my trained reached my stop at Ueno station where I got off to walk to my hotel. Soon after leaving the station I noticed that there were a lot of homeless people living around the station entrance in handmade cardboard shelters they seemed to be calling home. Thinking back, there were a lot more homeless here now than there had ever been in the past. My fellow train passengers exited the station and pulled out their phones, concentrating on the screen in front of them, not seeing the homeless around them. Back to home they went. For them, the homeless did not exist.
Once in a while, I thought, “Put down your phone and look at the world around you! Think about the people you meet every day.” Across from Ueno station is Ueno Park where homeless people have lived for as long as I can remember. These “professional homeless” have a great sense of pride, evident in the fact that they sweep their quarters clean every morning. They are less wasteful than most of us, conserving their resources, collecting and recycling cans and cardboard and the like. Labeling them as just homeless is not adequate; maybe we should deem them an ecologically green society that is carbon neutral.
It is not only in Japan or the United States; all economically developed countries with highly developed technology run a danger in believing that technological advancement brings people closer together. In some ways it does, but in other ways I fear that the gap in human communication is widening.
In Denver, the homeless wait outside in the cold and snow for hours to finally be led to a chapel crammed full of folding chairs. There they sit, crowded together, their bowed heads not quite visible behind the backs of their bulky layers of winter wear. Only a few seem to listen to the high pitched music or the sermon blaring amplified from the pulpit.
It makes me a little sad that the homeless guests must attend the chapel service in order to get a meal and a bed for the night. Anyway it is difficult to hear in the chapel with all of the racket made during mealtimes. Maybe just a quite, warm refuge from the ravages of the world of the streets outside might be enough of a message from God.
In the 19 years I have served the homeless at the Denver Rescue Mission, this is the first time I have offered my small opinion or words of advice. I hope they are taken in the spirit in which they were given.
This is the last meal service for the year and every month we have done our job without fanfare. I give my most sincere thanks to the effort and support of the many Nippon Kan students and volunteers who have made this year and all of our 19 years of service possible. I also thank the Denver Rescue Mission who have provided a place for the homeless and for us to come for the past 19 years. The Denver Rescue Mission is not a place to help only the weak or displaced. The mission also provides us as volunteers a place and an opportunity through all of the experiences we have had to learn from them, reflect and be thankful.
AHAN Nippon Kan Founder
December 24th, 2009