During the past four weeks, it has been a distinct privilege to tell just a few stories of the men and women who are or have been homeless — people often shoved to the periphery of American life.

We like to think we could never find ourselves on the streets. That our own work ethic, intellect or morals will keep us safely sheltered. And while that will be true for the vast majority of people in this country, there will be those of us who slip into a life without stable shelter after one wrong turn or a series of traumatic events, sometimes wondering how we came to live in such terrifying and lonely circumstances. I was drawn to the stories of men and women without homes long before I became one of them.

Like Nikki Loch, I didn’t “look” homeless, and it was years before I was willing to acknowledge that I spent many months as a homeless person.

The shame and stigma attached to that label was too much to bear.

In my early 20s, and in my final year of undergraduate school, I found my financial aid package had been cut just as the cost of textbooks and living expenses mounted. Despite working two minimum wage jobs — rising at 4:30 a.m. each morning — I didn’t make enough to pay for rent or even a dorm room. So I lived out of my car, sometimes crashing on friends’ couches and floors.

It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t an adventure. It was embarrassing, terrifying and exhausting. After several months, a group of caring and observant professors saved me from the nightmare of living in a leaky car in Walmart parking lots — from nights spent sipping burnt coffee in a smoke-filled Waffle House.I was given a campus dorm room to finish out the last several weeks of school, ensuring I would graduate with my degree in English and move on to graduate school. I am now acutely aware that if that group of caring women hadn’t connected me to the resources I needed, my life would have gone very differently.

I was lucky. And I am thankful.

It is my sincerest hope that the stories you have read over the past few weeks ignite a fire that burns warmly in the hearts of many, for it will take the kindness and compassion of many to fully and adequately address homelessness in Knox County. And compassion without action is not enough.

As homeless expert Ryan Dowd once said, “If we have compassion for the most vulnerable, but we’re too afraid of them to have a conversation with them, our compassion isn’t worth much.”

So as the weather turns cooler, may we all spare a kind word and a smile to Eugene as we walk down Main St.

May we offer a sandwich or a few dollars to John without assuming he’s “just an addict.”

May we look at stories like Nikki’s and see what might be possible with outreach and renewed hope.

For information about what you can do to be part of the solution, or for volunteer opportunities to help Knox County families, follow the Knox County Homeless Task Force on Facebook, or contact the Salvation Army at 812-882-6933 or the United Way at 812-882-3624.

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