By Holly Herring
My husband has started saying that I see “Invisible People.”
It all started because I work in social services with people who are living without a house. I get paid to walk around outside and strike up conversations with people I identify as homeless and see if I can help them get connected with the resources they need. This has caused my vision to change.
I have always noticed homelessness, as much as the average person does anyway. But now I will be stopped at a light and while I am waiting, I’ll spot a person that the rest of the world seems to believe doesn’t exist. They can almost look through people they don’t wish to see.
One day my husband was driving and we were talking. He picked up a slight change in my tone and he saw my eyes lock on the sign in front of a gas station. He followed my gaze and saw who I was looking at. The light turned green and he began to turn while I watched this man. He drove for a few seconds, then he stopped our conversation to ask “you want me to turn around, don’t you?” I nodded my head and was relieved that he picked up on this.
Once we were parked at the gas station I got out of the car, grabbed one of the cold cans of soda we had just purchased and a hygiene kit out of my trunk. Then I grabbed a backpack I keep in my backseat—I call it my Narcan Bag—and walked up the embankment to check on the man I had seen from the car. When I got to the top of the embankment I saw him up close, he was standing slumped over as if he was suspended from invisible strings.
His mouth was slack and I noticed wounds on his arms and legs. I took a look at the color of his nail beds and his lips and seeing that they weren’t turning blue I said, “Sir, my name is Holly. I saw you here and thought you might be hot and thirsty.”
His eyes opened and his body began moving very slowly with new life as if he was one of those time lapse videos of a flower blooming. I held out the can of soda and he smiled and reached his long arm out for it.
He told me his name and he said he was grateful because he was indeed very hot and he felt like he had been in that spot for a long time. I motioned to the sores on his legs and asked if he would like a hygiene kit to clean up his wounds. He looked at the plastic bag and then he looked at me again and said he remembered that he had met me before and that I had given him one of those bags. He said he had a heart valve replacement surgery in the past and keeping himself clean and free of infection was important, yet very hard to do.
We sat down in the grass and he enjoyed his soda and we talked about how all the truly important things had changed recently, like the location of the weekly shower trailer and how now only a cold sack lunch was given out at the church in the Village instead of a hot meal served to people sitting at picnic benches. We talked about how expensive laundromats and bus passes had gotten.
We had just taken the 2020 census and I asked him if he had been counted. He told me he didn’t feel like being counted was all that important when what he really needed was a wound care clinic to come to the area reliably. After we had talked a while, I mentioned to the man that I needed to get back on the road to get my groceries home but I asked where he usually could be found and if it would be alright if I found him again.
The man got to his feet and shook my hand before telling me his usual territory then I returned to my car and my husband who had been patiently waiting for me.
I sat down in my car and my husband said to me, “I know when you get that look and your voice changes that you saw someone who is invisible to most people and I would not get your full attention until you had checked on him.” I tossed my backpack into the backseat, glad I hadn’t needed to use the Narcan it contained, and smiled. This was not an isolated incident and this has become a regular scenario that my husband seems to notice frequently now.
We went out to pizza with friends one night and my husband noticed as I slipped my fingers onto a man’s neck who was outside with his head down, checking for his pulse. The man revived slightly and looked up to mutter my name through chipped and broken teeth.
I smile at him and say “I’m just checking to see if you’re okay.” He nods and reaches down, checking to make sure his bags are still at his feet. The pizza eating people all around do not seem to notice that any of this interaction has occurred.
I was driving home from the beach one morning and I spotted a man in a field by some railroad tracks bent down in some tall grass watching local law enforcement give a stranger a citation in a parking lot. I stop in the convenience store, buy two coffees, and walk over to the man in the field and hand him one of the cups.
“You working on a Saturday morning, Holly?” I told him no, I was just in his neighborhood looking for someone to have coffee with. We exchanged stories, then he walked with me to his camp and showed me how this new spot has a view of the golf course. I told him it was a beautiful view. When I got back home my husband was just waking up for the day and he said “you were out with invisible people again, weren’t you?”.
Having had these interactions with people can make it very difficult for me to be in spaces where people with houses—that get counted at every census—are pushing for legislation that affects all these people that they never see: the Invisible People. I am struggling listening to elected officials at city council meetings and board of supervisors meetings supporting ordinances that criminalize some people for sitting down, for standing in a par and for sleeping on a bench. Then there are conservatorships. All of those people I just wrote about would be prime candidates for conservatorships if you ask some people.
My spirituality has caused me to see things in a different way.
I find myself leaning hard on the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra more and more as I walk through encampments and soup kitchens. I know so many people that other people do not see and I find myself spending more and more of my time with those invisible people than the people eating pizza in restaurants and speaking at important meetings.
I have more authentic moments outside with cheap convenience store coffee and I value the view of a golf course from the railroad tracks more than most people do.
Thereupon the Lord touched the ground of this billion-world-galactic universe with his big toe, and suddenly it was transformed into a huge mass of precious jewels, a magnificent array of many hundreds of thousands of clusters of precious gems, until it resembled the universe of the Tathagata Ratnavyuha, called Anantagunaratnavyuha. Everyone in the entire assembly was filled with wonder, each perceiving himself seated on a throne of jeweled lotuses.
Then, the Buddha said to the venerable Sariputra, “Sariputra, do you see this splendor of the virtues of the buddha-field?”
When I think about the setting in which the Vimalakirti Sutra takes place, I picture Vimalakirti wanting to have some discourse with his community members who are intimidated by him—a layman.
I think about him pretending to be sick just so that all these beings will come.
He hopes that when they do come and hear the conversations that these beings around him will all get closer to enlightenment because of it. They all have such a great time too, discussing duality and non-duality. Then they discuss the very thing that will always draw me into discussions, a goddess gets asked why she doesn’t transform into her male state then switches states with the male Sariputra and what gets demonstrated is a real understanding of gender equity.
I think the people I sit with often also really want an audience that’s genuine. When I sit with them and they tell me what’s really important to them and how they deal with their circumstances, I find myself a bit closer to enlightenment and suddenly I feel we might be sitting on jeweled lotuses.
What if these people living without a house are really just new versions of Vimalakirti wanting to share and bring enlightenment to modern day beings? Maybe we all need to talk about hygiene at a gas station with a stranger because we seem to be ignoring the fact that our dualistic thinking with our either/or and our black/white is so judgemental.
While my husband still calls them “Invisible People,” I have started thinking about them as the Modern Day Vimalakirti.
The Buddha touches his big toe to the ground and suddenly I’m seeing splendors and virtues from my jeweled lotus.
Holly has bonded her spirituality to her activism. She began her relationship with Buddhism through Fo Guang Shan, an international Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhist organization and monastic order based in Taiwan that practices Humanistic Buddhism. However, she finds herself more aligned with Stephen Batchelor’s more secular Buddhism currently. Holly works in homeless services and is very passionate about promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all people as well as eliminating stigma about homelessness and behavioral health.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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