Context matters.

I first met her at a Peet’s coffee. I was taking classes there in the morning and she leaned over, curious about the “weird video call.” We talked for quite a while. I told her about Minerva and the unique way I take class.

I have, for some reason, taken to calling her Renee

The bag at her feet looked well-loved. The osprey logo had seen younger days but the maroon color retained its vitality. Her hands seemed wrinkled but I merely assumed she worked in a labor-intensive job. Her dark hair frizzed no more than anyone else and the streak of white in it only made her all the more memorable. She sat charging her phone just like the young business executive a few tables away. Her camo print jacket had a few pins on it, a rainbow, and two crests.

She never gave me her name, yet I have for some reason taken to calling her Renee –  perhaps an attempt to give her added respect for her role in altering my biases and flawed perspective.

As we talked, she told me she had a bachelor’s degree and saw immense value in young adults pursuing education. She jotted down “Minerva” in a black notebook, frayed at the seams and barely holding the pages together.

She didn’t tell me she was homeless and I never guessed.

The conversation lasted only a few minutes before I had to return to class. By the time my class finished, Renee had left. I thought little of the interaction. Chatting with a stranger in a cafe is commonplace afterall.

Renee was many things – chatty, opinionated, and kind…I didn’t know she lived on the streets…

A month later, I took a class from a new cafe in another neighborhood. A woman sat beside me at the shared table.

“Still taking classes at the online university?” Renee commented after my class finished.

I laughed, “Something like that.”

In that short break between classes, I caught up with Renee. She had been at the cafe since 7:07 am when she left the BART train where she spent the night, “I like sleeping on the BART. It’s dry, semi-warm. But there’s still some nights when I don’t sleep. Not a wink. You just stay up all night. Sometimes it’s the cold or the thoughts inside your brain or the people coming by just don’t look right.”

Renee was many things – chatty, opinionated, and kind. I knew all this all from my first interaction with her. Until that moment, I didn’t know she lived on the streets. My preconceived notions of homeless people as semi-helpless, often aggressive, and remaining on the street did not fit with the smiling woman sitting beside me at the cafe.

I oversimplified people… but how do I correct such an error?  Can I?

Renee seemed unphased by my internal shock. Instead, she continued talking animatedly, “I need a job. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews but nothing yet. I’ve been thinking that I should just start my own business – maybe make wax or soap or open one of those overnight places where people could come and sleep peacefully somewhere warm. It could even have a coffee shop.” The idea of a safe and warm place to sleep came up multiple times. It clearly mattered to Renee and it seemed she longed to make such a place accessible for many.

I smiled. “It would be pretty nice to have an all-night cafe here.”

She nodded. “You know, you remind me of my friend’s daughter. Course, she’s a bit older than you. I haven’t seen them in a long time. I haven’t seen many friends in a long time. It can get a bit lonely out here. You have to watch out for yourself and always keep your stuff with you. The second people see an opportunity, they’ll steal your bag. I’ve had two iPhones stolen from my pocket. Just goes to show how desperate some people are.” Renee shook her head. I nodded my agreement and our conversation lapsed into a brief silence.

During my next class, the discussion revolved around ethical responses to homelessness – a puzzle sitting embodied in the woman beside me.

Previously, and quite arrogantly, I assumed that my preconception of homelessness was accurate .

Serendipitously, it was Giving Tuesday at the cafe where we sat. A day for people to come, pack a small bag with essentials like a hat, gloves, or granola bars to send to a local charity for people experiencing homelessness. Renee commented to me, “I got one of those bags one time some years back when I was first on the street.”

“Did it help you?”

She shrugged. “Something is better than nothing.”

I waited, hoping for a story. None came.

“Do you want to make one of those bags with me?” Renee asked after a few moments.

And so we packed bags for the homeless, a homeless woman and me.

As we placed items into the plastic bags, Renee commented on them. “Oh man, these socks are really nice. And that small pack of tissues costs $1.29. Better put in multiple of the small wipes – those are so useful…”

Previously, and quite arrogantly, I assumed that my preconception of homelessness was accurate. But I had oversimplified people – the fact that I simplified people at all shows the error of my ideas. But how do I correct such an error?

Will intense thinking, consciously and subconsciously help?

Will action to give, donate, or serve help?

Or is the only “fix” spending time around people experiencing homelessness to grasp the depth and breadth of their natural complexity and richness?

Is there a fix at all?