CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Nearly 300 people attended The Caring Place's recent fifth annual fundraiser at the Cleveland Country Club. Its theme, "Those People," offered a closer look at the 3,700 families and more than 200 homeless people the agency helped in 2012.
"'I'm not one of those people' -- we hear it every day from our clients and from society, as well," said Chelsea Long, resource developer for The Caring Place, which offers a number of programs providing food, clothing and other assistance.
Long said the stereotype that people in need are lazy, lack ambition or don't go to college is a myth.
"I didn't grow up poor," read a table postcard describing the circumstances of one Caring Place beneficiary, a college graduate whose father had lost his job and the family's life savings in the economic crash a few years ago.
"I left the shelter full of hope" and "I dream of a better life for my kids" were highlighted in other postcard testimonies.
Caring Place officials and guest speaker and author Mike Yankoski -- who purposely spent five months as a homeless panhandler -- drove home a consistent message throughout the evening: Those most in need deserve love, care and respect. In short, they matter, he said.
A mission trip to the Dominican Republic, which Yankoski made as a teenager, served as a turning point in his understanding of what poverty meant. It happened when he saw a small child, barely clothed but overjoyed with probably his only toy -- a bottle cap attached to a piece of string.
"My world got flipped upside down because poverty went from being an abstract idea to being a person, and that changed everything," Yankoski said. "We can distance ourselves from ideas, but it's much harder to distance ourselves from people, though many of us are very astute at that, as well."
While in college, Yankoski said, he took inspiration from the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan and launched a spiritual journey that took him and a friend to five cities where they survived only by the grace of God, their wits and the kindness of strangers. He shared his experiences, which formed the core of his book, "Life Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America."
While Yankoski and his friend encountered help and friendship at times, scorn and apathy colored much of their odyssey. They witnessed touching acts of kindness, but often they were ignored, even on the steps of a church or when surrounded by Bible study groups in a restaurant.
To be homeless -- even for a short time and with the knowledge that he ultimately did have a safety net -- was still a hard and dehumanizing life, Yankoski said. He admitted he could not fathom the despair of people who have no choice in the matter.
Yankoski challenged the audience to ask themselves what it means to love their neighbors in a real, meaningful way.