A few days ago, I had the… opportunity? to go through an abandoned hotel. It hadn’t been abandoned very long, and I was going through it to make sure that no one had broken back in to try and live in it. For some context, it helps to know that I’m a security officer, and my company was trying to make sure the property was safe for a third party to come in and see if anything inside was worth salvaging. My first thought was that this would be a great opportunity to have some fun, since I have kind of a weird fascination with abandoned stuff. And at first, it was. Flickering lights, strange noises, we found all the hallmarks of a scary movie, except in real life. As we went from room to room, though, my entertainment faded and I began to feel very sad. I wasn’t just going through an abandoned hotel. I was going through where someone, many someones, spent their days. My day of fun exploration turned into a lesson in perspective I don’t think I’ll soon forget.
This hotel was mostly filled with people that had no real home to speak of. The hotel was their home, and was likely the only thing of permanence many of them had. Trash was strewn everywhere, glass doors had been broken, windows were boarded up. Many rooms had no functioning bathroom, so waste was piled in the corner. Mice had died on traps in the middle of the floor, suggesting that they had no fear of humans and openly searched for food. Drugs, both prescription and illegal, were left laying around in bottles of all kinds. Several of the tenants were hoarders, and the smell was intolerable for more than a few seconds at a time. Some of the rooms appeared to have suffered a fire at some point, and were just left alone and closed instead of repaired. The beds, broken down and sunken in, had stains of all kinds, and their frames were the wrong size, broken, or just nonexistent.
At first, seeing this level of poverty almost offended me. The hotel was still operating as a hotel, believe it or not, until about a month prior to our entry. Who would live in this sort of place? I had heard from someone that the tenants were all being charged a monthly rent to stay there, and their fee wasn’t much cheaper than some local apartments cost. Why wouldn’t they go somewhere else? And then it hit me: because they had no hope.
I could almost see the ghosts of the tenants that lived there as we went in each room. These were people that had given up on feeling that they deserved anything better. People that had given up on living, and instead had relegated themselves to just existing. People, just like you and me, that had no one that cared whether or not they were alive, much less that they relieved themselves in the middle of their bedroom. People that lived off of convenience store snacks because they couldn’t afford groceries and didn’t have the appliances to cook anything anyway. People that had no need to get out of bed in the morning, so they didn’t. They’d just stay there for days at a time, using drugs as their escape. It was so solidified that this was their existence that even when the building was condemned, they fought to stay. They had no concept of a better life, or if they did, they didn’t feel that they would ever be able to experience it.
About halfway through our little tour, I began to think back to my own apartment. Our little space with four rooms that we call a home. We didn’t do anything to deserve it. We didn’t choose to be born into the middle class. God has blessed us with so much, and He expects us to give out of those blessings in return. I’m working on a post now about what the bible says about giving, but this experience was a big reminder that “the poor” aren’t just kids in foreign countries on late-night commercials or criminals stuffed into a shelter on cold nights. There are people, humans like us with hopes and dreams, however distant they might seem, right down the road that could use our help. What are we doing to help them? It also made me think about home. Our apartment isn’t “home” because of the furniture, or the decorations, or even because it’s where we sleep at night. It’s home because that’s where we are loved. It’s where we share our successes and failures without fear of being rejected. Did the people that lived in this hotel have that kind of support? Would anyone listen to them if they wanted to talk? What circumstances had they faced in life that led to them living in these conditions? Money might clean up their situation temporarily, but it would likely never be fixed if they felt that they were alone.
Then, my reflection turned to my behavior. How do I treat people that smell funny, or look like they don’t have as much money as I do? Do I hold my breath and walk past them? Or do I perhaps be the only person that will smile at them that day? Too often, I’m afraid it’s the former. Through my actions, I cement the pattern of thought that keeps someone living in the conditions I just walked through. The one that says, “you’re on the bottom rung, you don’t deserve anything but a burned-out hotel room overrun with mice.” What if I made it a point to reverse that? What if I asked someone how they were doing with the genuine intention of finding out? What if I put my own world on hold for a minute to make sure someone else’s hasn’t crashed down around them? Jesus spent most of His time with the people no one wanted to acknowledge, what if I quit pretending I was royalty and did the same? Would I be the reason that someone felt valuable enough to make a positive change in their life? Would five minutes of my time be the self-esteem boost that someone needs to finally apply for a job and start working their way out of poverty? Maybe not, but what would it hurt to try?
I’m not naïve enough to think that poverty can be ended with hugs and smiles. But if we can provide hope to those that think there is none, I think that’s as good a starting point as any.