Sometimes, the baggage is more than we can bear

I work for Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat is an organization that helps put people into homes that they otherwise couldn’t afford. Our families are a slice of our county’s diversity, and each home has a story woven of successes, failures, illnesses, dreams, challenges and blessings.

Some of our partner families have suffered from intergenerational poverty, and others, a catastrophic illness. Many of our families make up the low-wage workforce that powers our economy and simply can’t afford a market-rate home earning $16 per hour.

Whichever situation brings a family to us, we offer them a chance to get back on their feet. I think many of our families would eventually succeed without us, but with a hand-up, they can get to success quicker.

For other families, especially homes with an illness, the home we build with them is the difference between the unsure life of poverty and low- to median-income stability. Some folks need more help than others. Some people need time to heal while others can jump right back into the game. Many needs are difficult to discern or comprehend, but are nevertheless as real as you or I.

When I was all of 19, I started interviewing homeless men who lived under an elevated freeway in the District of Columbia. I was studying to become a social anthropologist. My focus was American poverty. The men I talked to were often drunk, always reckless and by and large out of control. Most were in their early 30s, bearded, filthy and spending much of their day yelling at cars, each other or at things only they saw.

Their primary goal was that by nightfall they would have drank enough, shot up enough or sniffed enough to pass out.

When I think back to those interviews, I always remember their eyes: red, bloodshot, teary, weepy, miles away, forlorn and ageless. Not knowing better, I assumed these men decided to become drunks. Not knowing better, I assumed these men made a willful series of bad life choices and were now paying the high cost. Not knowing better, I assumed.

What I learned was that almost to a man these gentlemen had been across the world in-country. From the few shards of broken memories shared with me, I learned they had seen something in a river delta, in a jungle or in a rice patty through their then-19-year-old eyes that saddled them with so much baggage that they broke. What these chronically homeless men needed, but never got, in addition to a welcome home and thank you, was help, including housing, physical and mental health services.

It’s not just vets that carry baggage. I worked with a woman who as a child was repeatedly sexually abused by her own family. At 13 she was given the option of prostituting herself or selling drugs. She chose to sell drugs. At 15, she had a baby. At 18, she was arrested for punching a police officer and jailed. Her 3-year-old daughter was placed into foster care, where she was abused. When the mom got out, she couldn’t get her child back because she didn’t have an address; she was a homeless person. The abuse continued for another year.

Finally a neighborhood-based nonprofit pieced back together a broken home. To a lot of people, and on paper, my friend sounds like a violent drug-dealing criminal. To me, she and her family are precious jewels. Many poverty-stricken families need more help than other folk, for reasons you may wish you never knew.

Everyone’s got baggage. Some can carry more than others can. It’s not a contest.

Once, some 25 years ago, my brother and I were having dinner and a beer after a long day at our respective jobs. My brother was coming off a rough patch, nothing like what I’ve described above. After telling me about the heavy load he was carrying he looked over at me and said, “Everyone’s got baggage, but sometimes I feel like I’ve got the whole Samsonite line.”

I listened and nodded and he smiled. At some point everyone needs someone to talk to, to hear them, to care.

I hear you, brother.