From the Dirt Road

Social norms, homelessness and leftovers

by Amber Jensen,

I have driven by the car so many times — too many to count really. I’ve witnessed the frosted blankets covering the windows on chilly mornings. I’ve looked away when the woman stepped out of the driver’s seat to help the little boy straighten his shirt as the sun warmed the icy blankets and made small puffs of steam in the glimmering morning light.

It’s easy to say homelessness is a choice. In many ways it is a cascade of choices and then, the feeling of complete and utter helplessness to undo what has been done. Yet, it isn’t completely a choice to be without a home or to be dehumanized or to be a social outcast. Not in the way that choices are made each day to order coffee or fill a car up with gas.

It’s easy to look the other way — drive by the cardboard sign or look away from the sleeping person in the pile of blankets on the sidewalk. 

What’s not so easy is to look into the eyes of the human being living on street and see just how easily it could be you, your loved one, your family. What’s not easy to to realize the choice to connect with another human is ours to make or avoid.

I know it’s not easy because it’s taken me months to stop by a car where people live. It’s taken me months to think up what I would say. It’s taken me getting over all sorts or stories I made up. It’s taken me getting over what might be, could be or should be.

Guess what, stopping and saying, “Hey, what’s up, how can I help, I see you,” was enough. It is enough to acknowledge someone because the rest takes care of itself. Once the human connection is established the awkward idea of expectations melts away.

Homelessness isn’t some out there problem. 

It’s something we often push so far out of our own visual perception that we forget those people pushing their belongings in a grocery cart and the woman living in her car with a little kid – those are human beings and those humans are connected to us. 

If you ever wonder why someone is living the way they’re living it only takes a few moments to ask them how they got there. That question may feel out of line but if asked in an authentic and genuine space of caring it can open up so much for both of you. Sure, some people will ask for money or something financial but there are a lot of human beings living day-to-day on nothing but hope and fear. Those two things rarely co-habitate well.

I met someone recently that is without a home and a job and doesn’t use social services or get aid from the various helping networks in town because he and his girlfriend fear losing their child. He admits that he knows the rules that state a child can’t be taken from their family due to homelessness. He also says knowing doesn’t help on the cold nights and the times when they aren’t sure where the gas money for their car will come from. He doesn’t have a home and he didn’t make excuses. I asked questions and he answered them.

My struggles seem so much smaller when I consider the village of supportive humans that have my back. When I imagine my own family as homeless I think of each of the human being in our lives that would be there to help us. Not everyone has that.

When I left the parked car as he tried to figure out how he’d get his battery jumped so he could get to the gas station to get fuel so the car could be started and warmed up throughout the cold Spokane night, he waved and said, “Hey, thanks for stopping to talk to me. You’re the first person to make eye contact with me or talk to me in weeks.”

I was afraid to stop. For how long did that fear stop actual human connection? 

We all have something we wish we hadn’t done. We are all one choice away from a cascade of choices that could leave us without the life we are so comfortable with. 

I have a heart full of gratitude right now. I’m grateful for my life, the choices I’ve made and that I have the means to drive by this parked car each day. I’m also grateful that I had leftover enchiladas in my fridge that day. When I stopped, later, with a hot meal and a fresh cup of drip coffee from my own kitchen, the man looked surprised. He confessed that he didn’t think I’d be back.

It doesn’t take a lot to make a connection with our fellow human beings. It felt scary for a few seconds but afterward it was a matter of stopping back by the next day to pick up my leftovers dish and say hello to a new friend.

Amber Jensen is an author, journalist and freelance copywriter specializing in pieces that highlight the human condition as connection and contribution. She hails from small-town Idaho and makes her chaotic home on a piece of dirt in Eastern Washington, with her adventure-seeking husband and four wild children. Learn more about Amber by visiting

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