I learn so much from my cousins. They are doing amazing and unique things to change to world. In the spirit of my previous column, in which I urged readers to "do something," I thought I would tell you about my cousin Nathaniel Gee.
Nathaniel is a civil engineer who inspects dams for a living. He rappels down the Hoover Dam inspecting structural wear and tear. His job also takes him all over the West.
When Nathaniel checks into a hotel for these overnight trips, he doesn't hole up in his room to watch cable or take himself to the movies or find the fanciest restaurant in town. Instead, he always asks the hotel clerk one question: "Where do your homeless hang out?"
The clerk always knows. But Nathaniel isn't trying to avoid these areas. He's trying to find them.
And when he does, he invites one or two of the homeless out to dinner. He asks about their lives. He wants to know what brought them to this point. He wants to know what keeps them on the streets.
He wants to understand.
Years ago, when he was a young father and between jobs, Nathaniel and his family lived at a campground for several months. They were a long way from destitute, but it made him wonder about those who live like that for years and years. He began asking himself questions:
What was their background? What led them to this? Would he have been able to pick them out of crowd 10 years prior? The kids he grew up with, were any of them homeless?
In asking these questions, in mustering up the courage to just approach the homeless, he realized he had a lot of fear. He had a lot of prejudice. And he didn't have a good answer for how to solve the ever-increasing issue of homelessness in America.
One interaction led to another. Nathaniel now keeps a blog, thegeebrothers.com, where he documents his conversations with the men and women he encounters.
These interviews have left an indelible impression on Nathaniel. He's learned that society treats a person differently when they are homeless. They are shunned, or even worse, invisible. Even when he is standing in their midst, he is treated differently because he looks different.
He's learned that many of the homeless had terrible situations even at a young age. They grew up surrounded by drugs and were on the streets by age 14. He's learned that society has very little tolerance for relapses. There are programs for those who commit to stay clean, but if they slip up, they're out. In addition, no one wants to hire employees with a criminal record, which makes entering the work force after jail almost impossible.
He's been surprised how many people in their 50s and 60s are homeless, after a lifetime of normal, steady income. "They hit a bad patch, in a service job or construction work, and they find themselves homeless," Nathaniel said.
He used to ask many of the homeless, "What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in five years?" They just gave him a blank stare. They didn't know how to answer. They were just trying to get from one day to the next. One man said, "Five years? I don't even expect to be alive in five years." Nathaniel stopped asking that question.
The more Nathaniel has learned, the more he has realized he doesn't know. He doesn't know how to solve a problem this large. It's not a quick fix.
But here's what he has learned.
"That is exactly what happens in our society with the homeless. They get put in the bad part of town, while we go into our gated community. We know they're there, but we are able to forget about it. We need to step out of our comfort zone."
Good Samaritan. "I was very much the priest. When I saw someone who had been 'taken by thieves,' I passed by the other side. We have to be willing to treat these people as humans. People can rise to the expectations we give them. I don't think we'll see a drastic shift until we do that. They might not change overnight, but treating them like they're normal might help them become part of society."
Here's what's great about my cousin. He isn't starting a program. He isn't trying to "fix" anything. He doesn't claim to be an expert. He is seeking first to understand. He's reaching out to individuals one by one. He buys someone a hot meal. He spends an evening listening to them share their story.
I know I often fall prey to the idea of wanting to change the world, but only through economies of scale. I want to move mountains, not pebbles. But like Nathaniel said, so many of society's troubles will only be solved if we are willing to work with the one, the individual.
To look them in the eye, and call them by name.