Lessons Learned Living as a Homeless Man

By: Guest
September 23, 2012

This is a guest post from Grace for Grace.  He runs a blog by the same name.

It was about 5:45 p.m. one Friday evening as I drove my car a few blocks away from the food bank and parked it ambiguously.  I hadn’t showered for two days and had about 5 days of facial hair growth as I stepped out onto the street and made my way towards the Salvation Army’s shelter.  I was wearing my work clothes and felt nervous inside with questions in my mind about how the experience would play out.  Never before had I put myself in a situation where I was on the receiving end of being homeless.  I had always been the one giving help.  As I walked up to the building, a man lying on the ground with a red face and reeking of alcohol stared me down.  I asked him where I could get some food to eat and he pointed around the alleyway where there were more people who looked similar to him.  I thanked him and started walking towards the alleyway.

For one of my Masters Degree courses in managing diversity, our professor asked us to put ourselves in a situation that challenged our world view.  I’ve been pretty fortunate throughout my life with the blessings of knowing God and having a supportive family, and feel that although I’ve had challenges, I have never had to deal with homelessness.  After discussing my idea with my professor, he thought it would be a good idea to expose myself to the homeless culture.  Originally, I was going to go there and just ask them questions about their situation, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt it would be a better experience for me to be one with them instead.  As I approached the alley, I prayed in my heart that I would be led by the Lord and learn a lesson that He would have me learn.

The alley was lined with people who had dreadlocks, dingy clothes, tons of piercings, and down-trodden faces.  Some didn’t look so bad, while others clearly had been living a rough life in many ways.  I walked through the crowd and asked for help in where to go.  The first gentleman just stared at me and turned his head but then I saw one of the Salvation Army workers who told me to go into a certain door.

As I entered the door, I saw a plate and people lined up to dish up some spaghetti and salad.  I thanked them as they dished me up and turned to see where I should sit.  There were groups of people at tables and also a few lonely individuals at tables throughout the room.  As I scanned the surroundings, a young man with long hair in a ponytail with his head down caught my eye and I walked over to him and sat down in front of him.

“Can I sit here?” I asked.

There was no response, so I took that as a yes and sat down wondering if I would get a conversation in.

I took a few bites of food and then asked “So do you come here often?”

Then the young man looked up at me and said “Sometimes.  Do you have a place to stay?”

I hadn’t thought about what my story would be so I thought quickly and told him I bounced around to friends houses.  Then I asked him if he had a place to stay.  He told me he did, but that he had lost his job as a professional musician when the studio went under.  He also told me that his wife had just left him as well.  However, he said that he had faith things would work out.  I was intrigued with his optimism and asked him why he felt things would work out.

He proceeded to share his testimony of Jesus Christ with me and the hope he had in his heart.  He told me of how earlier in his life he was addicted to drugs and alcohol but that through a miraculous prayer, he was healed of his addictions and became a follower of Jesus.  He then started telling me that if I had hope and faith things would work out for me as well.  He started sharing some inspirational scriptures from the Bible with me and I felt very moved as he reached out to me even though he was in such bad circumstances.

When he told me that he was not on unemployment and that he didn’t have enough money for rent I asked him how he planned on paying.  He looked at me with confidence and said “God is faithful.  He will provide.  He always does.”

I was touched as I thought about all that I have been blessed with financially and the beautiful little family that I have.  I realized as I spoke with this young man that it could be taken away anytime and that essentially everything I have is not mine, but God is loaning everything to me.  In this instant, I then thought about this young man and an idea came to my mind.

“How much money do you have saved up for this month’s rent?”  I asked him.

“None.” he replied.

“Would a couple hundred dollars help you?” I asked

“Oh. Yes!”  He said.  “I’m not sure where I’d get it, but I could definitely use it.”

I then asked him where the nearest bank was and he said two blocks up the road.

I looked at him and said “You have a very good heart and the Spirit of the Lord is with you.  I feel that God has led me to give you some money to help out.  Let’s go to the bank and I’ll get you a couple hundred dollars.”

His mouth hit the floor and he said “You’d better not be messin’ with me man!”

I assured him I wasn’t.

As we walked to the bank I told him I had dressed up as a homeless guy to try to see things through different lenses then I am accustomed to.  I told him I have a good job and a beautiful wife and little daughter.  He was very amazed that I would do that.  As I withdrew the money and handed it to him, he lit up and was so grateful.  He asked me if he could pray for me and of course I told him he could.

When he prayed for me, I felt such love and charity coming from his heart.  Not once did he pray for himself, but he prayed for me, my job, my wife and daughter.  He thanked God for answering his prayers that somehow he could find means to pay his rent.  He also prayed for his wife who had recently left him that she would get healed from alcoholism and find faith.  He thanked God for Jesus and faith.  I felt uplifted and renewed from his prayer and as he finished I asked him if I could pray for him as well and I did.

After we prayed together, I gave him contact information for the LDS employment services location that was right next to where he lived.  We walked to his house and he gave me some of his business cards he had made in case I came across anyone who needed guitar lessons.

As we parted ways, I had a silent prayer in my heart for him that he would find the answers to his prayers and with the faith that he has, I’m sure he will.

When I stepped into my car I reflected on the feelings of nervousness that I had originally felt and how I felt now.  It is amazing how God can replace fear with faith and I was once again reminded of how God “doesn’t care one bit if we live in a castle or a cottage, if we are handsome or homely, if we are famous or forgotten. Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely.” (Uchtdorf, 2009)

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17 Responses to Lessons Learned Living as a Homeless Man

  1. Stephen R. Marsh on September 23, 2012 at 2:10 PM

    That was well worth reading, thank you.

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  2. prometheus on September 23, 2012 at 3:35 PM

    A beautiful devotional for a Sunday, thank you.

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  3. Mormon Heretic on September 23, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    I used to work in downtown SLC in a small office building that housed offices for the local Presbyterian Church. On a few Friday afternoons, we were told that the Presbyterian Church would be utilizing the parking garage so that the youth of their congregation would spend the weekend learning what it was like to live as a homeless person. I thought it was an interesting object lesson for them, and I am sure that the experience gave those youth more empathy for living as a homeless person. I think it would be an interesting thing for our church to do as well, in addition to the pioneer treks that are so often enacted.

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  4. graceforegrace on September 23, 2012 at 5:23 PM

    MH,

    Very interesting thought. I hadn’t thought about taking it to the next level and having the church do it. Is that something that a local ward could just do without approval?

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  5. Stephen R. Marsh on September 23, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    graceforgrace — probably, just like you can have Fast Sunday without approval further up the supply chain. Just another youth activity or high adventure.

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  6. Samuel Rogers on September 23, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    You hooked me… I want to know what happened to him!

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  7. Badger on September 23, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    As I read this, it doesn’t sound like the experience went very far in challenging your world view. As you said, I had always been the one giving help, and this seems to be an account of finding yourself in that position one more time, after having set out with different plans.

    Naturally there is nothing wrong with making a change of plan to help the man you met—quite the contrary—but I wondered what you thought about the experience in terms of your original purpose. Was there time before you stepped out of the homeless role for you to have a significant experience of it? I am referring to your own assessment, not your professor’s expectations, and of course I understand you didn’t necessarily tell us all you could have about what you did before the trip to the bank. Do you have any inclination to do something like this again? It sounds more than a little intimidating to me.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on September 23, 2012 at 10:01 PM

    Interesting and uplifting!

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  9. graceforegrace on September 23, 2012 at 10:19 PM

    #6 (Sam)

    Unfortunately I never did see him again so I’m not sure what happened after our encounter.

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  10. graceforegrace on September 23, 2012 at 10:30 PM

    #7 (Badger)

    Thanks for pushing a bit to dig deeper into some things I didn’t flesh out in the story.

    I would say I was there for about an hour or so before I met the gentleman I spoke of. Prior to that, I parked my car a few blocks away and then walked to the shelter. When I got to the shelter I had to wait in line with a variety of people. Some of the people I could tell were users (drugs) and others alcoholics. Some I was surprised to see relatively well dressed. I was pretty intimidated being surrounded with that and as I was “herded” into the lunch line I felt like I should be on the other end of the table handing out the food. It was a very humbling experience.

    When I sat down, I just picked a random table and was going to eat and try and make small talk with the people around me. This young man was a very friendly guy and we hit it off pretty well. We probably talked for a good 20 minutes or so before I just couldn’t take it anymore because I felt the Lord prompting me to help him.

    You ask if my world view was challenged. Yes it was, albeit for only an hour or so. But that hour gave me a glimpse into the life of someone severely less fortunate.

    I think on MH’s comment about our church providing support for homeless shelters and I think we should do more of it. I feel that we sometimes tend to stick together rather than go out and put ourselves in an uncomfortable situation.

    I also think of Jesus mingling with the poor and the Jews judging him for it. It makes me reflect and I think I am probably guilty of that as well. Jesus was always with those less fortunate it seemed on a daily basis. In the Church we are lucky to get out there once/year and serve the poor.

    Maybe we should rub shoulders with the Salvation Army (which is a church) more often.

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  11. Koy on September 23, 2012 at 10:48 PM

    Interesting post.

    I’m more or less homeless, though of a modern variety. I have been the beneficiary of financial support, but only from people who knew or know of my situation, but I have also been the witness to some crazy things – like family members investing thousands of dollars while I sleep in my car, or gather pennies just to afford a burrito at taco bell.

    I’m not going to say it’s a result of church culture, but people have a miraculous ability of being able to effectively block out the disadvantaged, the homeless, etc., while they live upper middle class lives. A large part of privilege, after all, is the ability to remain oblivious to those around us.

    I’m doing better, now, but still homeless…just a modern version: educated, disenchanted, yet hopeful.

    Ps…the church did nothing for me, financially or otherwise. My family did very little, though some, and it’s limited to only certain family members My friends were my lifesavers. Truly giving because they saw the need…

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  12. hawkgrrrl on September 24, 2012 at 12:18 AM

    There is such stigma associated with homelessness, and yet, it can happen to people who otherwise would be just like everyone else. People lose their jobs. People lose family support structures. We don’t necessarily deserve the advantages we have any more than they deserve the disadvantages that have been their lot.

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  13. Howard on September 24, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    Great experience graceforegrace! I did something similar for about 9 months a couple of years ago and I am still active with some shelters. My experience led to a very deep introspective journey as I came to understand the western fascination and addiction to materialism is simply lust and greed that has been culturally glorified, embraced and condoned. There is more than enough to feed, shelter and heal the world but greed prevents this from occurring.

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  14. Mike S on September 24, 2012 at 2:39 PM

    Thank you for this post. We get so caught up in mine, mine, mine that it is a good reminder that ultimately is it all God’s.

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  15. Julia on September 24, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    I have really debated commenting or not, and I hope that my thoughts are taken in the inviting spirit that I hope accompanies it.

    I have been homeless five times. Twice I was homeless while married during my first marriage, (after we had children) and one of those times really were our fault. Another time we literally were in circumstances we could not control. During my second marriage, we were homeless twice, due to layoffs during the economic downturn. Both of those times my parents let all of us live with them. The other time was between leaving and my first divorce, and was certainly the most traumatic.

    All of the times we were homeless when I was married were due to job loss. In one case I was a nanny, and we received housing as part of my pay. When my infant son was hospitalized, I was fired after he had been in the hospital for ten days. It was the only time I have lived in Utah, and since my employers had ward leadership callings, the Bishop offered to pay for our stuff to be moved to Oregon, but other than that, we were left on our own. Without the social worker at Primary Children’s Hospital, I am pretty sure our son would have been put in foster care because I suddenly didn’t have a job, a home to have him discharged to, or any family in Utah.

    I have lived in campgrounds, with relatives (mostly my mom) and I have lived in my car. I have been on food stamps, lived on less than $600 a month (which includes the food stamps) while having three children. I have been attacked because another person in a shelter thought my earrings were valuable, and I have had several times where I have a meal a day, or less, so that my children could eat. I have been to soup kitchens and many food pantries, as well as the Bishop’s Storehouse, on quite a few occasions.

    It took me a while to read the post because I was pretty sure that I would read someone else’s story of their experiences being homeless, and I wanted my husband to be home in case I needed a shoulder to cry on.

    Given what I expected, the post just left me feeling flat.

    I don’t doubt that it was a faith promoting experience, but it didn’t carry anything that felt authentic to me. (I am not saying it wasn’t meaningful to those involved.) I did learn A LOT during those times about Christ and the gospel. It strengthened my long-term testimony, but that was not true for the vast majority of people I know who have been homeless. I also am not sure that someone who has an apartment, but is unsure if that will continue to be the case, if that would give the same insight that sleeping on the street would. (There are people who get upset with me calling the times we lived with my mom as homelessness. I would not have thought that counted either, before it happened to us, so I get that the definitions are squishy.)

    Personally, I think a title like, “Lessons I Learned From A Homeless Man,” might have been more appropriate.

    So, a few questions from the other side:
    I am curious, for this “experience,” what was the plan? Was it just to eat in a homeless shelter? Was there going to be more to it? Was there a reason you went home and not back to the food kitchen or homeless shelter? Did it occur to you that in clean clothes and coming from work that you were probably identified as a “mark,” and that the man you helped spent the first few minutes sizing you up, to figure out the best way to get you to volunteer to help them? Did you try to keep track of him, or did it just not occur to you?

    I hope that I not offending, because I do think it is important for trying to understand others whose lives are different than ours. Other parts of my life, even when I have had stable housing and income, keep me in contact with people who, or recently have been, homeless or housing unstable. Finding long-term ways to provide safe housing and food security for everyone is important to me.

    I regularly donate time, money, and sometimes space in my home. I don’t want anyone to feel like any donation of time or money is too small. Everytime we take a step outside of our own, it is a good thing!

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  16. graceforegrace on September 30, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    Hi Julia,

    You bring a dimension to the conversation that is on a much deeper level. While none of us wants to be homeless, sometimes we are in situations that put us out there and it is humbling.

    I didn’t write about this, but when I was a child after my parents’ divorce we were homeless in the sense that you described by living with relatives and going from place to place because my mother didn’t have an education and very extensive work history. When we finally were able to get a little income coming, we were in a not-so good part of town in an apartment. We had a relative who helped support us and keep us off the streets, but we lived off of food stamps and third-hand clothes. I mention this to let you know that I can somewhat relate to your experiences.

    Having said that, I’ll move on to your questions.

    1. Was there going to be more to it and was there a reason why I went back home rather to the food kitchen?

    As stated, my intention was to put myself in a situation that challenged my world view. Not only did it challenge my world view, but I did learn a lesson from it. While I did not return to the shelter, I did learn a valuable lesson that the money God gives us really isn’t ours and we should be gracious in sharing it. Shortly after this experience, I anonomously paid for one of my relatives’ missions because his parents were having a hard time.

    So while I didn’t go back and volunteer at the shelter, I did learn the lesson of giving our money and how much people need it.

    2. You asked why I didn’t keep track of the young man. In all honesty, it didn’t occur to me to keep track of him.

    I also have some questions for you.

    1. What were you able to do to get out of poverty?

    2. How have you been able to keep faith in God despite a lack of money?

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  17. Julia on September 30, 2012 at 2:45 PM

    Graceforgrace-

    Thanks for responding to my comment. My husband sometimes teases me about how many comment threads on LDS blogs shut down, after I share a real life circumstance that is uncomfortable. I guess my experiences make it hard for me to stay out of the waters that include deeper insights. I try never to be vulgar, but I don’t think sugar coating reality helps people who prefer to ignore some of the world’s real problems.

    To answer your questions, I am going to have to share a little more reality, and I hope that it won’t seem course. I don’t know if I will personally ever see myself as completely out of poverty. I am grateful that my husband has a good job, where he has worked for 20 years. When we met he had just finished paying off gambling debts, and had stopped drinking when he wasn’t at home. We feel very blessed that while he was dealing with his addictions, he was still able to work. He joined the church almost a year ago and while we sometimes struggle with paying tithing (more because it feels reflexively wrong than not being able to afford it, as long as it gets paid first) although our fast offering is more, as a percentage of our income, than it has been at any other time in my life.

    I think the biggest things that have impacted being in poverty or not, have come with being divorced or married, although not always in an intuitive way. My first divorce was a matter of emotional and physical survival. If he hasn’t killed me, I would have killed myself at some point.

    My second divorce came because we were trying to get out of poverty. We lived on the west coast, After four months, and being laid off within a week or two with starting at a second company that decided to close down west coast operations, we accepted that to work in the field he was qualified for, we would have to move to the east coast. His mom lived back there, and he was able to find a job, about an hour away, within a week if going back to stay with her.

    All of the personal details don’t matter a lot, but after spending the last of our savings on lawyers, to be permission to move my oldest children out of state, he gave up. My youngest, our only child together, was already with him, receiving much needed medical care. He care about me and my older children, but after 6 months of living with his mother and our daughter, he had decided that a quieter life, where he never had to deal with my first husband again, was better than trying to make our marriage work. It isn’t the decision I wanted, but I do understand not ever wanting to have contact with my first husband again.

    My second husband also sees his decision as financially responsible. He doesn’t have to try to provide for three children who are not biologically his, and he can make sure that our daughter has opportunities that she might not get as one of four or five. I don’t see families or children that way, but I can see that for him, the divorce was a way to make sure that he and my youngest will never live in poverty again.

    I have worked at various points in my life, and my husband and I are working at starting a company, with his boss’s blessing, that will allow him to do some work for their clients, that his employer does not want to provide, but that he is highly skilled at doing. We are hoping that this will allow me to work from home. I have several health issues that would likely qualify me for being put on disability for the rest of my life. Even with the relative success of my recent surgery, it is hard to tell how long it will be until the next level of degeneration happens.

    There is also the financially, medically and emotionally charged decision about whether to have a child with my third husband. The doctors don’t feel that there is any danger or impact that a pregnancy would have on my long term health. I am realistic about the energy that babies and toddlers take, and I am not sure if I will have it. On the other hand, my husband has never been married before, and he wants snothr child in our family. Whatever decision we make, it will be based on faith.

    As I write this, I realize that I don’t see poverty as something that you move through and then forever away from. There are skills that come with dealing with poverty. A flexibility of thinking about ideas, a sense that nothing is permanent, and that the only foundation worth clinging to us the love of the Savior and our family and friends. Some of those feelings also come from surviving sexual abuse.

    I am sometimes baffled by how permanently my friends see the world. Where I see thousands of shades of grey, created by the combinations of experiences and talents, I can’t find the black and white others see. Where discomfort with the behaviors of other people starts for others, my discomfort begins way further down the scale. My ability to judge the choices of other is tamped down because I want to know where they came from, before I decide if someone is going the right way. I value experiences and people far above possessions, and I have learned that my testimony and choices are the most valuable things I will ever have.

    (I am changing some significant details in the last paragraphs as a protection for my children, and for the choice of the man that helped me. I changed, or left out, the ones that might identify those involved.)

    At one point I was living with a family who had offered me a room in exchange for weekly cleaning of their home. Both parents were partners in their own small business, and many of their customers were near where her best friend lived. Since they home schooled their daughters, they often went with their mom on business trips when she stayed with her best friend. They had mentioned in passing that they both occasionally went out of town for business, when they offered me the room. The first trip I was working 10 hour days, and came home to eat, clean and fall asleep. The second time she was gone was supposed to be for 2-3 days, but turned into ten. I was working fewer hours, and was trying to save as much as possible so that I could afford an apartment of my own, so that I could move my children with me, instead of having them on the weekends only. I had two male coworkers who would invite me over for dinner or breakfast, because they knew I was not eating regularly, except when I had my children on the weekends.

    Two days before the wife returned from her trip, I woke up to the husband sitting next to my bed, naked and asleep. I screamed, assuming that he was there to sexually assault me. He woke up and screamed, unaware that he had been walking in his sleep. (I will never know for sure if he was, but whether he was it not is not really the issue.) He went back to his room and locked the door. After shaking for an hour, I called one of my male friends and told him what had happened. While I was talking he had gotten dressed and driven most of the way to where I was living. He picked me up, and took me back to his apartment. I fell asleep after having a couple of sleeping pills and the only shot of whiskey I have ever had. When I woke up in the early afternoon, he had already moved all of my stuff out of the house I had been staying in, had moved my car, and had talked to our boss and gotten both of us that day, and the next one, off of work.

    I did not have enough money saved up to be able to afford an apartment, and it would take me several months to save what I needed. The financial troubles from my first marriage, and the 18 months I didn’t work at all, because my first husband said that not working would save our marriage, meant that I needed the equivalent of four months rent to move into even the most basic one bedroom. My coworker could only afford a one bedroom apartment, and had suggested that he transfer to a two bedroom apartment in his complex, so I could just pay the difference in price, and have a safe place to stay.

    If I hadn’t had children, I probably would have done it. He hadn’t told me at that point, but I could tell he was gay. I wasn’t worried that he would do anything inappropriate in front of, or to, my children. I had no worries for my safety, in any sense. If I didn’t know that I had custody hearings coming up, I am not sure exactly what I would have done.

    When I talked to my bishop, he suggested that I go to a shelter. After my experience with my earrings, I was not interested in going back to the shelter, and I did not want my children to have, or witness, a similar incident. I explained my concerns, and he asked me to pray about it. He told me that no matter what the details were, that as long as I was living with an unmarried man, he could not help me. In his mind, living with a married couple, even if the wife was gone a lot, was morally different than living with a single male friend. He even told me that if I went back to where I was living before, and saved up another $490, that the church would match that amount, so I could get an apartment in two months.

    I went back to my friend’s house and cried for hours. I was so upset I couldn’t even explain what I was upset about. There was only one Mormon he knew well enough to talk to, and so he called his fifth grade teacher, at school, to ask her if she would come over and help him know how to help me. She came to talk to him while I was working an extra shift. After hearing the details, she offered to talk to her husband, and then have both of us over for dinner the next night. She lived in a different ward, so I had not previously met her, and I didn’t know she was LDS before we got to their home. All four if us had a long talk about what my needs were, what I had tried, the concerns I had about my children and my safety. At the end of the evening they invited me to stay with them for three months. I had my own bedroom and we moved bunk beds into the room next to it so my children would have their own room on the weekends. While there were some personality issues, and I was glad that my bishop asked me not to switch wards when it was only for three months, it was a stop gap that saved my sanity.

    So, that one set of circumstances that lasted for eleven days (while I was staying at my friend’s apartment that had a single bedroom, while I was still married, and where he was single) could be interpreted in many ways. There are some very black and white rules that I was breaking during those days. If you didn’t know the additional details, you could be forgiven for assuming that one night I went home with him after work and started a short but heavy 11 day affair, while I was married. During that time I had alcohol, slept next to a man that was not my husband, considered living with a man that was not my husband, and chose not to see my children. If you didn’t know the details, what would you assume from some if them?

    I think the biggest life lesson from my experiences with poverty is that almost everyone is doing the best with what they have. Even people who seem to be willfully sinking against God, are rarely in situations that are not colored with hundreds if shades of grey. Anytime I hear people being lumped together, there is a part of me that cringes, because I know that ten people performing the same actions will have wildly divergent paths that brought them to that point.

    Does that make sense?

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