A collage-style image of several people of different races. Framing the image reads the words "homelessness has faces"
“I don’t think of someone as homeless, I think of people as betrayed” Jesse Mentken writes. (Rodney Bell)

I have not been homeless in almost a decade. But my homelessness was deeply influenced by the fact that my mother was homeless before me, for many years.

I loved her so much. When your own mother hits the streets, you learn something. When she was homeless, a part of me was homeless.

That is actually how the Buddha sees homelessness: If you suffer, I can embrace that. This is not an embrace as if it is a burden. I remember just wondering why the world did not do a good job of showing love to my mommy.

I am not Buddha, but I do spend time reminding myself that there really is not all that much of a difference between self and other. I do not think of people as homeless; I think of people as having been betrayed. I think of it this way because when someone has been betrayed, you try and not betray them. You do not see them as walking failures or losers.

I want to write about a man or a woman. I want to write about a soul and not a homeless person. I want to write about my friend Sam. I want to write about the fact that his mother died and he feels lonely. Yes, he is on the street, but his loneliness bothers me even more. I want to write about the fact that I gave him my old laptop because he is a writer. I want to write about the fact that after that, he invited me to breakfast at a nearby McDonalds. And I want to write about the fact that I loved that man as well. And that was the only thing that I thought about: love.I think that is because my mother was homeless, and when she was, I would sometimes meet up with her at a cafe in New York City. And I remember adoring her. And I remember feeling a very simple being-ness that was based on seeing that my mommy was sad and tired and needed love. Often she would yell and scream at me during these visits, and I would go home crushed.

‘I guess there are no homeless people. There are just endless souls’

I never really thought much about the politics of poverty or homelessness at the time. I still don’t. This was the woman who held me in her womb. This was the woman who would bake banana bread for me. And now she was hurting. And I wanted her to be loved and I wanted her to be held and I wanted her to be held enough to be happy enough to hold me as well.

I’m still that young boy just wanting to wrap my arms around my mother. Innocent clarity, I call it. Why would anybody not want to wrap their arms around another lonely, tired, angry, scared human being? Is there any reason not to?

I don’t think anybody is homeless in the lap of God. And I do not think anybody is homeless in your lap if your lap is the lap of compassion as well. Do you see that the lap you hold another in is the same body that you sit within your solitude? The presence you have when with yourself is the same presence you are able to give to others. And so when we sit we are in our own laps. And so when I am with myself I am with you and when I am with you I am with myself. For in the embrace of love the fact that you woke up behind a cardboard box and I woke up in a one-bedroom apartment means little and our shared humanness means a lot.

To liberate the “homeless” is to embrace them so radically that we destroy the very “themness” we used to find “them.”

I still talk to my mom. She is still a vibrant living presence in my life and soul and heart. She was my first home. A womb with a view, I tell myself.

We fumble around trying to love and free and fight and champion and rescue only because we are not Buddha. We cannot yet look at a tired man who is filled with feelings of misery and hatred and liberate him with a glance. And so we give people blankets or money or a cup of coffee.

I guess there are no homeless people. There are just endless souls, each one who had a mother and each one who had the original face before they were born.

This story originally appeared in Street Sheet, San Francisco’s street newspaper.

Jesse Mentken is a writer who has experience with homelessness. His venmo is @Jesse-Mentken.