‘Homelessness is a snapshot for most of us,’ but not for us – Pasadena Star News

A man stands with his belongings under the awning of a building to stay out of the heavy rain on Van Nuys Blvd. in Pacoima on Monday, February 5, 2024. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

What would you most like people to know about you? What feels like the most important aspect of who you are as a person? If someone were to describe you, what are some of the identifying details you would most want noted?

For me, I would want people to know that I was a good son. Not always, but most of the time, and especially when it counted. When my mother became ill, I did my best to take care of her. I was a good brother too. Brother and sister aside, I loved my younger brother with all my heart.

I want people to know that I love them. People. I love people. Even though I’ve never met you, I love you. I have a great place in my heart for us humans and the way we continually stand up for each other.

I get endless joy and hope when I see that in us. I love music. So much. My life is rich and full of music. It is a constant companion. And books. I want people to know how important books and literature are to me.

I’m grateful for all the hard times I’ve been through – the failures, even the trauma. I often think about how I wouldn’t change anything because it’s the culmination of all that ‘that’ that brought me to this. It has shaped and informed the person I am.

Shawn Morrissey, vice president of advocacy, Union Station Homeless Services
Shawn Morrissey, vice president of advocacy, Union Station Homeless Services

For the first time in my life, I fully appreciate who that person has become. That’s how I see myself. That’s how people who have taken the time to get to know me see me too.

There are other things about me. It’s okay if you know them too. But they’re not the most important things or even the most interesting things about me. I had a problematic relationship with drugs and alcohol from the age of 12 until I got sober at 40. I have three psychiatric diagnoses: anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Those things weren’t exactly the dominant factors in my becoming homeless, although they did become the prominent identifiers of who I was perceived to be during that period.

“We are people who are currently experiencing a traumatic life event. We are not the event.”

When I was homeless, no one knew I was a writer, that I dabbled in science fiction books, or that my favorite album was D’Angelo’s Voodoo; that I loved my mother beyond measure and never missed her birthday or Mother’s Day. That I cried during movies. And what I longed for most was connection. To love and be loved.

All of these things were true during my homelessness, but no one ever asked me what my favorite book was. What my relationship with my mother was like. What kind of music have I been listening to? They don’t put those kinds of questions on the intake forms. I was often asked if I had a drug problem. I was asked if I was mentally ill and if I was taking medication, but not once did anyone ask about my hopes, dreams, passions, or skills.

Homelessness is a snapshot in time for most of us. It is a temporary event. It is not a defining characteristic or personality trait. We are not ‘the homeless’.

We are humans currently experiencing a traumatic life event. We are not the event. We are so much more than this very visible moment in time. We are siblings and parents, grandparents, artists, teachers, philosophers, lovers and lovers of life. Our hope; our desires are identical to yours. Just like our struggle.

There is no division, no difference, except where we lay our heads. We are the same.

What do you want people to know about you? How would you most like to be seen or known? As the complete person that you are, with your many talents and passions, your wonderful qualities, hopes and dreams… or as the sum of your shortcomings; the things you struggle with the most?

We get to choose how we look at each other and think about each other. Whatever your situation, I choose to see you first and foremost as a beautiful person.

I choose to see you as everything you will never encounter at an intake interview.

Shawn Morrissey is Vice President of Advocacy for Union Station Homeless Services. He too has experienced homelessness. Union Station, headquartered in Pasadena, works to provide permanent solutions to end homelessness and rebuild lives. His column appears biweekly.