Okay, I’m Awake Now. What Just Happened?

July 11, 2023

One day last month, I donned an old tee shirt, well-worn jeans, and dirty sneakers and headed into town to get a haircut. No matter how tight the cape, I always end up itching from snippets of hair that weasel their way down my collar. I intended the day’s outfit to be essentially disposable, and I planned to shower as soon as I got home.

However, I needed a few things for supper, so I swung by the supermarket on my way home. I picked up a jug of milk and a handful of other items, then found a checkout lane with only one person in it ahead of me, and he was nearly done. The man, who wore a clean, black tee shirt and sported a slightly graying beard, looked up at me as I reached for a plastic divider and placed it on the conveyer belt behind his groceries. I unloaded the contents of my cart onto the belt as it lurched forward and stopped.

The checker removed the divider and began scanning my purchases. I waited for the man ahead to get out of the way, but he just stood there. Finally, I cleared my throat and looked at the cashier, hoping she’d remind him to move along. Instead, she looked at me and grinned.

“He’s buying your groceries,” she said.

Dumbfounded, I started to protest, but he just held up his hand, as if to say, ‘No.’

I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I certainly don’t need any help paying for my food. I felt embarrassed, and grateful that I didn’t have a cart piled high with groceries. Finally, I managed to squeak out a “thank you,” and the man smiled.

When the checker finished scanning my items, the man handed her his credit card, which she ran through and handed back to him. Then, without looking back, he walked away. My jaw dropped.

The checker handed the receipt to me and I accepted it, out of habit. Then, I wondered aloud if I should run after the man and give it to him. The teenager bagging my groceries laughed and said, “Oh, don’t worry about it. He comes in here all the time and does that.”

When I pulled into my driveway, I saw my husband working in the yard. I told him what had happened, and he scolded me. “You really shouldn’t go into town dressed like that,” he said. “You look like a charity case.”

I went inside, put the groceries away, and cleaned myself up, all the while thinking about what I should or shouldn’t have done in that situation, and what I should do now.

Why did he do that? I wondered. Did he really believe I needed financial help? Is my husband right that I should dress better when I go to town? Or is it something deeper than that?

I stared at the grocery receipt I’d pulled from my pocket. I can’t just take his money like that. Somehow, I’ll have to pay it forward. But I don’t think I want to do that by paying for a random person’s groceries.

Over the following few weeks, I thought about this long and hard. I first decided that I would double the amount of cash to pay forward. Then I considered the who and the where. It would be easy to just add the money to my regular church donation on Sunday but that sounded boring and, besides, it would remove an opportunity for creativity. So, I researched a half-dozen local charities, all worthy causes.

I ended up selecting the issue of shelter insecurity. The problem is extensive locally, nationally, and worldwide. In America, the problem is not just due to substance abuse and mental health issues as some reports would have us believe. The exorbitant cost of housing has exacerbated the crisis.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, most families lived adequately, even well, on the income provided by one wage earner. Today in many communities, it takes the combined income from multiple workers (some with more than one job) to provide the same or lesser housing—if that housing is even available. I’ve met people right here in Clay County who live in tents or campers, or with family or friends because they can’t find affordable housing, even though they are employed full-time.

U.S. Census data in 2017 revealed that median home prices rose 121% and median rent costs increased 72% since 1960, adjusted for inflation. During the same time period, median household income only increased by 29%. With recent high inflation, that gap has only grown wider.

Economists generally advise that a household should pay no more than 30% of their income for housing yet today, according to Habitat for Humanity, nearly 17 million families in America pay half or more of their income for a place to live. That means that nearly one in seven families does not have the stability that comes from safe, decent, and affordable housing.

This creates impossible choices for low- and even for middle-income families: Housing vs. food, medicine, childcare, clothing, health insurance, and car payments. Often there just isn’t enough to go around, so something must give. And that’s why we see gainfully employed people facing shelter insecurity.

Some large cities are beginning to address the crises of their enormous homeless populations, with their correspondingly huge mental health and substance abuse issues, but it promises to be a long, uphill battle. The situation in most rural areas and smaller communities is proportionally smaller, as are available resources to help. There are no easy answers. We need both policy changes and on-the-ground efforts to even make a dent in the situation.

Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and many local, smaller groups are tackling the crisis, one family at a time. It’s no longer acceptable to ignore it or to think that it is somebody else’s problem. If there isn’t a local effort to address it where each of us lives, let’s think about getting one started.

I am guilty of being oblivious for too long to the extent of this catastrophe. It took a simple haircut and the kindness of a stranger to wake me up. How about you?

Photo by Nathan Lemon on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Okay, I’m awake now. What just happened?

Karen Trostle says: July 22, 2023 at 10:57 am

Thank you Sandy for this gentle wake up call. I too wonder about homelessness and poverty in this place, we who are secure.. call heaven. Volunteering at the school gives me a peek into that which we don’t see on the streets.
I’d love to be a part of the solution!

Sandy says: July 22, 2023 at 4:05 pm

Thanks, Karen. Yes, it can sometimes be well-hidden. I’m so glad you volunteer at the school!

Brenda Kay Ledford says: August 5, 2023 at 7:55 pm

That was really nice of the gentleman to buy your groceries. There are still kind people in this world. Many are suffering with food shortage, but as long as people help others like this man, there is hope yet.

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