Not long ago I met Sir William and Prince Charles. It was an honor for me as I rarely meet men of their station. Of course it is not for lack of opportunity. Both William and Charles spend most of their time just a few miles from where I call home. If I were to visit them, however, they would not invite me in. I would be given no tour of their guest wing. I would see no king-sized bed, no portraits of great ancestors, no walls upon which to hang them.
Neither William nor Charles have a home. They reside rather among the streets of Downtown Nashville. William is 52. He has just been released from the hospital where doctors recently removed his appendix and portions of his pancreas. He is no stranger to hospitals. His life on the streets came just after a fall from a three story building shattered his right heel. He was working then. He is not now. In fact, he hasn’t for three years. With no income and suffering from severe health problems, this man who grew up the son of a defense contract executive is now walking through the night just to stay warm.
Charles plays the saxophone, tenor and baritone. He is charismatic and well spoken. He is a diesel mechanic and an electrician. And he is also homeless.
As I talked with Charles and William, I found it hard to understand why they were on the streets. These seemed to be reasonably intelligent men. They had education. They had verbal skills. But just because I can’t understand a reality doesn’t make it less so. In that reality, there are most likely two histories that are full of issues I could never truly understand, circumstances I could never comprehend unless I lived them.
During dinner, Charles talked a great deal. William contributed from time to time in his quiet, gentle way. Together with my friend Jeff, we shared a few laughs and a great meal with these and other gentlemen. Then we left.
Both William and Charles knew they would likely never see us again, and so they thanked us for our hospitality and kindness.
Jeff and I didn’t speak about this to one another. But we could both tell what the other was thinking. How does it get this far gone? What about family? What about government programs? What about churches? What about . . . me?
There are some who would make homelessness a political issue. The liberal might cast a vote for federal government programs designed to jump-start these men back into economic and/or social readiness. The conservative might stress the importance of local involvement and individual awareness, offering up faith-based initiatives as a better alternative.
The liberal might offer that we should do everything we can to get these men off the streets or at least out of the cold. The conservative might agree, but remind the liberal that more of these men should help themselves.
But while the two are struggling to right the wrongs of society through policy, William continues to walk through the night to stay warm. Charles continues to migrate from state to state working to save enough money to settle down in a location of his choosing, all the while trying not to spend his hard-earned money of needless expenses like shelter.
There’s a quote that is sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill:
“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”
I wonder when it comes to issues like homelessness where in that spectrum I fall. That’s when I remember the words of the volunteer who stayed with these men that night after my friend and I left for our homes. “Remember,” he said. “These guys don’t need you to fix their problems. Most of the time, they just want to be warm, fed, and . . .”
catch this . . .
“to carry on a conversation with someone who will listen.”
Later, after a lengthy conversation regarding our favorite authors, William confirmed these words. “It’s so nice,” he said, ” to carry on an intelligent conversation with someone who cares.”
That’s when I realized why I was there. It was not to gain insight into the problems of social policy. It was not to fix anything for William and Charles, to find them jobs, or to set right the wrongs they had suffered or even inflicted. Instead, I was there to be a friend on a night when there was no one else.
Sometimes, a problem is so big that we never get started trying to fix it. So that night, I decided to start by not trying to fix anything. Instead, I put social stigmas aside. I laid down my prejudices and had conversations with two men that the day before might have never crossed my mind. These were not homeless men, they were just men. They could have just as easily been royalty.
And so it is that Jeff and I spent our Monday evening having a wonderful dinner with two truly wonderful gentlemen. Good luck to you, Sir William and Prince Charles. I do hope to see you both again soon.