I’ve been meaning to tell this story for awhile; I haven’t had time until now. It happened last Wednesday afternoon.
People were just arriving. I went outside to make sure that the smokers were set up with their ash-can. (We don’t normally allow smoking on the premises, except for overnight guests.) I was walking through the solarium, when someone walked up behind me. I’d never seen him before. He looked well-kempt; I didn’t think anything of it. I said hi. He introduced himself. Then he asked me,
“Do you have any programs to help people?”
“What do you need?”
“It’s my first day homeless.”
Oh. My heart about fell out of my chest.
I asked him if he knew about Loaves and Fishes. He did. I was still racking my brain. I said, “Okay, good. Hmm. I’ll find out. Come with me.”
I knew there would be people on the front steps, smoking and hanging out. There were. I said, “Hi, I’m just making sure you guys are set up. And, this is R___. It’s his first day.”
They welcomed him immediately. I slipped back inside. I didn’t realize that I had just done the most helpful thing I could for him. I didn’t think I knew how to help. And so I found Kathleen.
“There’s a guy outside that I want you to meet. It’s his first day homeless. You’ll be way better than me. I don’t know what to tell him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Resources. I don’t know what’s here.”
She got a Street Sheet, and marked it with a highlighter while she talked to me. And she said, “They’ll know more than we will.”
I went back outside, armed with an actual tangible list of resources. And I found him, sitting on the front steps, surrounded by five or six old-timers who were giving him advice. One of the locally famous had ridden up on his bicycle. He was counseling him about what programs he might be eligible for, being so newly on the streets. Someone else, homeless himself for the third time, told him, “It’ll be easier for you because you’re new. There are more ways they can help you.”
I sat next to him on the steps, and gave him my Street Sheet, which they’d clearly told him about. And I listened to everyone else.
They had completely taken him under their wings. He still had the lost, anxious look in his eyes. He still wasn’t able to laugh. But they were telling him all the ways that he was not beyond help. They were homeless themselves, and didn’t have any more material wealth than he did. But they were doing what they could, to make sure he’d be okay. Telling him that he could camp with them. And reminding him that he was there tonight, and safe.
I said to him, “You fell in with the right crowd.” And I went back inside, leaving him in the best hands possible.
This is what community is. These people have nothing tangible. They couldn’t give him a house. But they had experience. And they shared it. I can’t imagine being as lost as he was—which is why I felt so helpless. But they could. They’d been there. Each of them had had a first day, when their sense of safety unbuckled and fell off. They had each had a first night, when they didn’t know where they might sleep. They couldn’t rewind the clock, for this man. But they could, and did, walk through this evening with him.
Come. See the graces that I get to see. Steve Skiffington coordinates shelter nights. Contact him. Help cook dinner, meet people, get to know them. You don’t need any special skills. Don’t worry that you might feel as clueless as I did last Wednesday. And don’t be afraid that you won’t know how to start a conversation. “Hi! How are you doing today?”, is as good a start as any.
There’s a ministry in San Francisco called Faithful Fools. It was started by a Roman Catholic Franciscan sister and a Unitarian Universalist minister, both women, in 1998. A major part of their outreach is what they call “street retreats,” in the Tenderloin. There’s a day retreat about once a month, and a sleepover retreat maybe yearly. The idea is to let yourself be open to the experiences that happen to you. To notice who speaks to you, and how, and who doesn’t. To be aware of when and where you feel safe, and when and where you don’t. To notice your own judgements of situations and other people. To experience not being allowed to use a restroom; to wait in a food line. I did a day retreat with them a year ago December. My reflections from that experience are here.
Their weeklong street retreat that year took place during Holy Week. I thought about going. A friend from my field ed placement had done it, and encouraged me. I didn’t, because I was on chemotherapy and needed access to refrigeration for the chemical I was self-injecting. I was exhausted and headachey all the time. It wasn’t the right time for me to go. But I’m considering doing it solo, this Holy Week, in Sacramento.
To live, for one week, as if I were homeless. To camp with Safe Ground wherever they are, and to find out where people go, who don’t have that community and safety. To eat lunch and take showers at Loaves—not because I’m with Safe Ground leadership and can eat without waiting for a ticket, but because that’s where you go when you’re hungry. To walk into the library to warm up—and feel people avoiding me. To see a police officer, and look away. To not get to do my laundry. To be aware of everything that happens to me and around me, and every way that I’m influencing those perceptions. And to be there, during our most holy time.
I might do it. I need to plan more and pray more. And I’d have to consciously evaluate each privilege I have—car, friends’ houses, knowing I can walk into any building and not question my welcome. (I live 45 minutes away, which would put something of a mental barrier against the idea of bailing and just going home.) I know I could stash something here, if I asked—but would I want to ask? Most homeless people don’t have that access. And so on.
People I care about are reading this and thinking, “Oh my God, don’t do that.” And people who see me work with homeless people know that I’m present, I care, and I’m able to build relationships with them. When I looked at the experience of a street retreat, before, I didn’t think I needed to do it. But having met R, especially, I don’t know if I can be as effective as I want to be, without knowing what it’s like to be him.
And I also know that I’ll never know that. I will always have a place to sleep—on a friend’s floor, if nothing else. I have never lacked a bed. I’ve been cared for through difficult times. It’s easy to trust that I will be. I’ll never get up in the morning, and not know where I’m sleeping that night. And even if I simulate it—if I go into the world as a homeless person for a week this March and April—it will be my choice. If I’m cold, or wet, or afraid, and I really think I’ve learned enough from this experience—if I want to give up, I can go home.
I can have the sleeping outside, the packing up before police find me. I can have the looks from strangers, the locked bathrooms, the waking up and going to bed hungry. I will never know the fear, the shock, the shame, or the wondering how on earth I got there. I cannot possibly be that lost. And that both comforts and disturbs me.
Pray for R, and for all who are newly homeless. Pray that they may find the community that will help them survive. And pray that we may walk through those fears, with all who come to us.