I spent a lot of Wednesday thinking about homelessness. There’s a gauntlet of folks who line Centre Avenue outside PPG Paints Arena during large events like the Elton John concert I attended that night. Some identify as veterans, others have service dogs parked by them with signs saying, “homeless and boneless,” and still others rely on their talents with a saxophone, but all are trying to work the crowd for a few coins or bills. I took my change from Roz at the concession stand in singles, so I could tip her and have ones left to hand to the folks I passed on the way out of the concert.
Inside the show, Elton played “Indian Sunset,” a Bernie Taupin epic lyric about the destruction of the Native American homelands and cultures. He reminded me of the man with the long, thick, black braided hair I used to share my leftovers with in college, the one who would only call himself Indian. I loved talking with him, even though more than once passers-by warned me to keep my food and my money to myself. They weren’t seeing my friend; they were seeing a stereotype of laziness, drunkenness, danger, whatever. Indian was like Ira Hayes, one of the heroes of Iwo Jima raising the flag in that iconic photograph, of whom Johnny Cash, himself part Cherokee, once sang, “Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won’t answer anymore; not the whiskey drinkin’ Indian or the Marine who went to war.” It was easy to forget that the Ira people saw after the war had a story that still moves patriotic Americans to tears; all they saw was the drunkenness.
Ira Hayes had some distinguished company in that. After the biblical flood, the story goes that Noah planted a vineyard, picked grapes and made wine. The kinder commentators explain that Noah was actually inventing viticulture, the first person to grow wine grapes, and didn’t realize that what he was making would make him drunk (kind of like the drug companies in the ‘90s didn’t realize OxyContin was addictive, right?). But I’ve always had a different take:
Noah was a righteous man in his generation. Later, when Abraham sees that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he argues with God to save the righteous people – because Abraham is righteous, and he wants God to do justice to the other people who deserve it. Well, Noah was saved due to his righteousness – if he’s that righteous, wouldn’t he be a little disturbed, just a little, at the sight of his friends, hometown, country, world laid waste by the God who said, “I’m going to save you?” Maybe he couldn’t take it – and knew full well that wine might gladden the heart, but it also erases the memory.
So just like Ira Hayes, Noah’s world, his heritage, was laid waste, and both found solace in the bottle. And just like Ira Hayes, Noah’s drunkenness was discovered and made the object of ridicule. His son Ham finds him passed out (and, some commentators add, naked), and instead of doing something about it, he runs to find his brothers to share the hilarious news. Ham is the guy passing a homeless person on his way to work and kicking her in the shins, yelling, “Get a job!” for good measure.
There’s another way. Ham’s brothers, Shem and Japheth, pick up a blanket, walk backward into Noah’s tent so as not to disrespect their father by looking at him drunk, naked, and unconscious, and cover him so he can sleep it off (no word on whether Noah invented the hangover the next morning or not). For this, they are praise-worthy, and Ham is cursed. Why? Because Ham took away Noah’s dignity, his humanity, his fatherly love and turned him into slapstick. The other brothers? To them Noah wasn’t a drunk – he was their father, who had done something unfortunate and deserved their compassion until he could fix his mistake. They were all homeless in some way.
Wednesday morning, at the annual conference of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers, I met a woman who understands Shem and Japheth’s approach to homelessness and brokenness. Anne Mahlum is a powerhouse, the CEO of a fitness corporation and a runner who has completed marathons on every continent but Antarctica. Eleven years ago, she was between high-level professional jobs in Philadelphia when her morning running route began to take her past a homeless shelter. Maybe because it was Philly, the men at the shelter began to cheer her on as if she was a much smaller, female version of Rocky Balboa on his way to the steps of the Museum of Art.
Most people would have kept their distance, kept their earbuds in, and possibly started carrying pepper spray on their runs. Not Anne. She’s from uber-friendly Bismarck, ND, and so she waved back, crossed the street, and started meeting the guys. When she did so, she explained, she found she no longer thought of them as homeless guys. She thought of them as men who reminded her of her dad. Her dad who was in recovery from addiction, to alcohol and to gambling, but who was also her superhero. So, these other guys weren’t homeless, they were guys, potentially someone else’s superhero, who happened not to have homes right now. And as a result, no one else could see anything about them except drunkenness, laziness, and danger – kind of like Ira Hayes. How many of them were veterans? How many were elite caliber athletes? How many were brilliant enough to have invented something mind-blowing? No one knew, no one cared.
Except Anne. She did what any normal person who runs marathons on every continent would do – she started a running club. She got shoes in the right size for 9 guys who agreed to join in and treat her and themselves with enough respect to show up to run the streets of Philadelphia at 6 am every day. She saw the humanity, not the “problem.” 9 guys running is now an 11 city, $6.5 million non-profit called Back on My Feet (BoMF) that not only takes people experiencing homelessness running three days a week, it builds on the positive effects of running to get them into homes and jobs with corporations like Marriott, American Express, and Aramark.
All because when Anne was out running through the streets of Philadelphia one morning, she didn’t see a bunch of homeless guys who she should avoid. She saw what Shem and Japheth saw – a man who reminded them of their father, if only he could benefit from a little compassion, love and respect. If only she could have met Indian – or Ira Hayes.