The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


February 1, 2014

Those with cold hands need a warm heart to help them

From The Back Porch

The past two weeks have been so cold that my long underwear needed long underwear.

Although I’ve shivered along with everyone else, I am one of the lucky ones. I have a house with a working furnace.

News media made a big effort to remind everyone to bring in their pets and provide shelter for their livestock. But what about the human animals?

On cold days, my thoughts and prayers turn to the people who live under the Sixth Street bridge in Huntington. There, the homeless take shelter in tents or whatever homes they can fashion. They are there for a lot of reasons.

Some come from rural areas to the big city because they think they can get along better. That logic is accurate. It’s easier to miss people who have little when they are scattered in the hills and hollers because they are not in your face every day on the street panhandling money or living along the edge of a city park, as is the case with folks under the Sixth Street bridge.

Some are mentally challenged. In the 1980s when the federal government got out of the mental health care business, people who could live safely and securely in group homes were turned out to fend for themselves. Without someone to keep them on medication, they turned to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

Some have suffered such a deep loss that they could no longer cope. Without the support structure of friends or family — or even with it, in some cases — they dropped out of society. The loss could be a death, an unemployment notice, divorce, depression.

Some are veterans who have trouble adjusting to civilian life or even regaining it after repeated deployments. Their families or jobs or both fell apart while they were serving their country. It’s easier to be alone than to cope in a structured society.

The main reason the homeless make us uncomfortable is because we know they could be us. Many of us are one or two paychecks away from being homeless, and that scares us. Those who have family willing to step in the gap are the lucky ones. Twice, I have been lucky.

But here’s what most people don’t understand. The homeless are independent. They don’t expect to live off Uncle Sam. They collect aluminum cans, gather useful items from trash bins, do odd jobs and try to eke out a living in their own ways. They don’t like to be herded into shelters to sleep on cots just inches away from strangers. They don’t want to be stuck inside. They like their freedom even though it comes with a price. They are not bums; they live by their own codes.

So convincing them to be un-homeless is the first task. They have to be willing to accept the structure of a job and keeping an apartment. They have to be willing to re-integrate into society. If organized society has been the cause of their pain, that’s a tough sell.

When a colleague and I used to walk through town during lunch, she tried to remember to grab some dollar bills to give panhandlers who asked for change or a dollar. We discussed whether they used the money to buy food or liquor.

She said it wasn’t up to her to judge. If they bought liquor, maybe they needed it to get through the day.

I had trouble giving the money because I thought liquor wasn’t the right way to spend it, and I didn’t want to take the chance that my “gift” would be used the wrong way.

Who am I to say what a person needs? If I were homeless, I’d probably take a nip or two to stay warm at night or to get through the day.

People yell and holler for homeless or hurt animals, which is good, but few are as worried about the human animals. We should be.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2014 by Nerissa Young

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