Social Distancing :: A Preexisting Condition

To many of us, social distancing is new.  We’ve never been told to not hug, not hang out, not say yes to an invitation to dinner, and basically to not be warm-hearted.  We have been disrupted, haven’t we? I, for one, don’t like it and I’m an introvert.

For many in the Dry Bones community, social distancing is not so new.  That’s not to say that our friends don’t love hanging out like any other human. It’s just that many people that experience homelessness are socially distanced by default. Social distancing is a virus that has affected our world for years.

Through the years, I’ve asked my friends on the streets these questions: “What’s the hardest part about living on the streets? About experiencing homelessness?”  They have responded with answers such as:

      • It’s so lonely.
      • There’s nowhere to belong or just be and exist. I’m constantly pushed around.
      • People treat me like I’m trash – like I’m not even there.
      • People treat me like I have a disease. They’re afraid to get too close to me – as if my homelessness might rub off.

One of my friends tells the story of the time that he was panhandling and trying to get a meal on 16th Street.  A father and son were walking past him. The father leaned down and whispered in the son’s ear.  My friend offered a smile as the little boy walked towards him.  The little boy leaned over and spit on my friend’s shoe and walked back to his father.  The dad gave the boy a high five and they walked away.

Sadly, this is a common story. And there’s nothing new happening in a story like this.  It’s classic discrimination.  It is the act of social distancing the other.

What took that father and son 2 minutes will last a lifetime in both my friend and that little boy’s life.  Like a virus, the message will replicate itself over and over in them both. It will eventually mutate and spread to those around them in countless unforeseen ways.  

Like this snapshot of a moment, the effects of living on the streets soon bore their way into one’s head and heart.  My friends often begin to believe that they are unwanted, unlovable, and outcast.  They can’t sit here.  They don’t belong there.  They lay their sleeping bag in one place only to be moved in the middle of the night.  They get yelled at by strangers.  They often have no family to call on.  Friends come and go.  Stress and survival cause fights and feuds and bridges get burned again and again.  Hearts break, hope dims, and social distance grows ever-wider.

This new social distancing thing is extremely unnatural in the Dry Bones community.  Sure, we get to share a lot of food, clothing, survival supplies, and practical needs.  But our strength is primarily found in eradicating social distancing.  We welcome the stranger.  We become family.  We make sure our friends are seen and belong.  We build a sense of connectedness and kinship. We hang out. We give hugs. We create safety. We increase proximity!

Another quick story – We’ve been sharing a lot of meals this week. We’re handing out to-go boxes of food instead of our normal family style meals. It’s so unnatural for us. Each and every time I’ve seen one of my friends, we both naturally move towards a hug or a hand shake.  And each time, we both remember at the last minute that touching is not allowed. Like two planes about to collide in mid-air, we catch ourselves and trip off to the side to avoid the collision and return to our 6 foot zone of safety. I love that it’s become our instinct to hug, to connect, and to join whole-heartily in the other’s presence.  This is the way it’s supposed to be.  (Did you see this video of Prince Charles this week? I get it, Charles!)

As we go through these next few weeks (months?) of intentionally socially distancing ourselves, I pray that the feelings, the longings, and the disruption will all pay off.

I pray that the virus is defeated, yes!  And I pray that a new viral pandemic will soon break out – one where we spread more joy, compassion, service, caring for the other, including the other, and seeing the other.

I hope we will come to fully realize how dear social proximity is in our lives.  I pray that we will never again take for granted our need for others – to feel connected, to hug, to hang out, to have dinner, to simply greet our neighbor with a true smile – to be warm-hearted humans all in this messy world together.  THAT is a pandemic I can get behind.

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