I drove the same route I always drive when taking the boys to school. North on Alabama. East on 22nd. Stop at the light on Central. I can’t think of one time we’ve had a green light there. So we stop at the red light and watch the men gathering at the liquor store. (Yes, at 8:15 a.m.) A few more turns and we’re in the drop-off lane in front of school.
It was at the light at 22nd and Central where we saw the man in the green blanket. You couldn’t miss him. The blanket’s hue was somewhat florescent and his constant movement drew our eyes to him. A wide-brimmed hat hid his face, but the rest of him couldn’t hide. He sat against the newly painted peach building with its black pride posters and Obama clothing hanging in the windows. The man appeared to be waking up. One of the boys made a comment about how much he was moving around as he huddled next to a garbage can.
Then my third son stated the obvious. “He’s homeless,” he said flatly. The tone in his voice made me sad. There was no concern. No emotion. No surprise. Just a statement.
That’s when I went into one of my many diatribes I so desperately want my sons to absorb. I told them that most likely this man was not always homeless. That he may have gone to a school just like theirs. That he may have had a nice home or a good job. Or maybe his parents couldn’t take care of him and slowly his life fell apart. I explained how he probably spent the night there on the side of the shop, exposed to the elements… the chilly night air, the traffic, the hard cement, the lack of food, not to mention the humiliation of sleeping, in the open, where everyone passing by can see him. He wasn’t burrowed in the bushes or sleeping under a bridge or in an alley.
What little I know of the homeless lifestyle, I tried to force on my children. I didn’t want them to see a homeless man in a green blanket. I wanted them to see a human being who was trying to survive. In the last minute before I pulled up to school, I even brought in my political views, telling them that our mayor wants to make it illegal for panhandlers to sit in places like that. This man wasn’t panhandling but I would bet he will be asked to move as soon as the owner of the store arrived. I’m not advocating homeless men and women staying on private property, I tell them, but I do hope…”Uh mom, did you remember my lunch?” I knew I had lost them. I pulled up to the curb and said my four “I love yous” and off they went into the land of learning.
When we moved downtown, my hope was that our family would concern itself more with the struggling people in our city than we would by living in the suburbs. My fear is that the boys will grow up seeing homeless men and women as a fact of life, rather than feeling a tug at their hearts for these people who are broken and hurting.
We do not give money to the men and women who stop us on the way to the neighborhood park or while walking the dog around the block. I struggle with this, but my friend who serves as a minister to a church for street people has told me I should not give them handouts. Instead, the idea is to build relationships with the people God may put in front of us again and again. It’s the job of the Church to take care of these men and women.
I am part of the Church, I say. Yes, but you alone cannot do it, he tells me. Not to mention that a large percentage of homeless people have mental illness, which may become problematic for many reasons. If we can build relationships and bring our new friends along with us into the church the burden of care is shared and the church operates as it should.
So taking my friend’s advice, I recently had the following conversation with a homeless man on the way home from the park. Two of my children are walking with me when a black man with bloodshot eyes, appearing about 50 years old, approaches us.
He: Do you know where there’s a homeless shelter?
Me: Yes, I do. If you walk down this street right here (I point westward) and then turn down (the next street), you’ll see Wheeler Mission on your left. They can help you there.
He: Can I ask you a question?
He: Why doesn’t anybody talk to me?
Me: I’m talking to you.
He: But I go to church and I go to pray and then I go to (someplace I had never heard of) and nobody talks to me. Nobody looks at me and I want someone to pray with me.
Me: Do you want me to pray with…
He: Hey, you got any money for a pop?
Me: No, I don’t have any money on me (truth).
He: Oh man! I dropped my cigarette somewhere back here. I need to find my cigarette.
Me: Smoking’s bad for you. You don’t need that cigarette.
He: (clearly not interested in praying or talking or even acknowledging us any longer, he paces the sidewalk for his cig) Where is that cigarette? I know I dropped it here somewhere.
Me: I’m going to pray for you as I walk. See you later.
I leave him pacing the sidewalk and I pray for him as I said I would. I feel inadequate in my prayers, and I tell God just that. I don’t know what to pray or how to pray but I pray anyway. As I walked up the steps toward my home, I looked down the street and he was gone. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, but I think of him often. His red eyes break my heart every time I get a glimpse of them in my mind’s eye.
This is the sort of concern I want my boys to have for the homeless. My hope is that somewhere in their hearts they will remember the man in the green blanket and see more than a homeless man but a man who in need of love and care and healing. That they will be the hands and feet of God, as Mother Teresa said about her work in Calcutta. I’m not asking them to start a homeless shelter; I just want them to see beyond circumstances and outward appearance and grow up knowing that living downtown was a gift because they were able to serve God in ways they may not have had otherwise.