“It’s the second time,” our custodian reported to me. “Time for what?” I asked. “Time I found homeless people sleeping in the shrubs around our church buildings.” Then it was the third and fourth times.
“What’s going on?” I wondered. So we asked our “visitors.” They responded, “We feel safe here. Between the child care center down the street and this church, we figured this area must be safe enough for us to sleep here at night.
Time passed. “I’ve got a new one” our custodian volunteered. “I found a couple sleeping in the bushes.” We asked them, “Do you not have a home?” “Oh yes,” they replied. “We have our apartment, but there is no air conditioning, so we are sleeping here during the summer where it’s cooler.” Since our ”visitors” would not leave by 7:00 AM as requested, at which time the church secretary arrived along with staff members from the Hospice of the Valley nearby, the reluctant conclusion was that the church had to secure the courtyard area in question with fencing.
More street people knocked on the church door for help. Each day it was five, six, seven or more. “Where are you all coming from?” I asked one transient. “Oh, you don’t know?” he said. “The word is out on the streets. This is the only downtown church that really helps people in need.” Even if not totally accurate, I swallowed in humility.
A man arrived at the church door apparently embarrassed to be present. “How can we help you?” I asked. “I need twenty-nine dollars to recover a package at the Post Office.” “We don’t give out money,” I explained, “but tell me about your package.” “Well, it’s just stuff,” he added, “my stuff.” I sensed there was much more to the story, and that it really did matter. Following more conversation I said, “Let’s go to the Post Office.” Along the way he kept repeating “there is really nothing in the box — it’s just my stuff.” There was a pause. Then I asked “Is there a photograph in your box?” “Yes,” he mumbled. “Is there a letter or something that matters to you?” “YES,” he declared. I persisted. “Are you telling me all the memories and possessions that matter most to you are contained within that one box?” “Yes,” he nodded. I declared, “Then, we’ll get the box.”
And we did. I spared him any indignity by not asking to see its contents, but offered a ride. “No, no, you've helped me more than enough,” and he quickly wandered off. I returned to my car and then happened to pass him walking briskly and hugging the treasured box to his chest — his identity reclaimed.
Over and over I’ve witnessed enormous gratitude for very modest assistance from street people who, in the process, have experienced “validation” as fellow human beings and “persons of worth.” No, I do not rush to every street person looking for a “hand-out.”
I dare say, many readers of these words have offered more caring and support than you know as “angels unawares” along life’s journey.
This article originally appeared in Roadrunner Extra!, the resident newsletter of Beatitudes Campus.