I’ve thought a bit about homelessness in the past couple of years, more so than I ever have before. Growing-up in the suburbs of Memphis, the only time I ever saw homelessness was when I would venture into the city for fun. And since the intention of those visits was to have a good time and homeless people were panhandling for money in an entertainment sector of the city, they generally just served as a relatively annoying brush with reality… a reminder that not everyone was able to spend money on movies and food and dancing. As I got older, I figured-out that the expected response to their presence was to ignore them by quickly walking past them without making eye contact. Well, that and to huddle closer to who I was with and clutch my purse tighter since they’re probably really dangerous.
But one memory of my childhood has always come to mind in those situations. When I was, oh, maybe junior high age, I remember driving with my parents one day when we came across a homeless person standing at the top of a freeway exit ramp. As we exited and waited at a red light to turn, my dad got out of the car in the rain and gave the man some money. This is my first memory of seeing homelessness as well as a response to it, and I remember being confused. I’m sure my dad gave me an explanation of what he was doing, but the memory of sitting in the backseat and watching my dad stop his conversation and exit his car in the rain to help a stranger has stuck with me. And that example has always come to mind when I’ve encountered someone holding a sign, and turning my head and walking away has always felt wrong to me.
Since being an adult, I’ve tried to have a different response. I’ve given money when I can, I’ve offered the standard “God bless you!”, and once I gave my Cheesecake Factory leftovers to a homeless person standing on the sidewalk hoping for food while watching person after person pass him and go into a restaurant to spend money on overpriced food in portions that no one should finish. But in the past few months, I’ve wanted to do more and have ventured out of my comfort zone to try to make an effort to help.
On the drive to our church in Seattle we often pass homeless people on the road, sometimes the same ones. There was this one lady last year, an older woman, who always stood on the corner where we usually sat at a redlight and tried to not make extended eye contact. We always passed her at lunchtime, and so we decided that we would pack her a lunch to keep in the car and give her on our way home from church. We did this for a couple of weeks, talked to her briefly while our light was still red, and had a short conversation about enjoying books. I’m sure our sack lunch didn’t make a huge difference in her life, but maybe she was a little less hungry that day. Maybe?
There’s this one intersection about a mile from my house that’s on the way to my favorite grocery store. Occasionally, there’s a person holding a sign standing there, and in the past few months I’ve stopped to meet two of them. The first one was last November, the week of Thanksgiving. A girl about my age was standing there in the cold, so I pulled my car into the adjacent gas station and got out to talk to her. Since I was on my way to the grocery store, I bought her a few bags of groceries and brought them to her on my way home. She was happy.
Then about two months ago I was at the same intersection, and I saw another girl about my age holding a sign that said, “Pregnant and homeless.” I parked at the same gas station and got out to talk to her. I learned that her husband had lost his job and since he has a prison record (due something non-violent that happened when he was 18), he was having a very hard time finding another job. They already had one child who was staying with a grandparent since they couldn’t take care of her. They were currently living in a tent in the woods behind a local neighborhood, and she was four months pregnant. She had had no prenatal care and was barely getting enough to eat. She had gone to four doctors’ offices that day looking for some prenatal vitamins and walked away empty-handed. I bought them some food and a gift card, gave them a recommendation of the midwives that I used during my pregnancy with Harris that were just down the road, and offered to help them with prenatal care costs if they couldn’t get anything covered by the state due to their lack of address. I gave her my phone number and got a message from her a few days later that she had found a place to stay, and since she never returned any of my phone calls after that, I assume she got some more stable help with her pregnancy.
Then about two weeks ago at another local intersection I was driving with Evelyne to the park and I saw ANOTHER girl about my age holding a “Pregnant and Homeless” sign and wiping away tears. I parked and got out to talk to her and listened to her story for about ten minutes. This poor girl… she had been abused as a child, her ex-husband is in prison for almost beating her to death, and the the father of the baby is gone. This is her sixth child…children that were conceived in marriage and a long-term relationship, but due to the horribleness of the men in her life, she ended-up alone and on the street, her children taken from her. She started crying to me that when she found-out she was pregnant she knew she couldn’t care for the child but she just couldn’t bear to abort it. She told me that she felt alone and misunderstood her whole life, completely overlooked. I told her that God had not forgotten her, and she told me that she knew that. That she calls out to Him, and He listens. She was receiving prenatal care but had no plans for after the baby was born, knowing that she wouldn’t be allowed to keep her baby if she didn’t have a place to bring it. I gave her the name of a Christian adoption agency in the area should she decide not to parent…she was very interested. Bags of food wouldn’t be helpful since she was staying at a temporary shelter at night but on her own during the day, and she can’t carry food around with her all day long. I gave her some money, but she didn’t even look at it, didn’t look to see how much it was. I think she just needed someone to talk to. She was so sad… she had been abused and taken advantage of and overlooked her whole life. I’m sure she had made some bad decisions that helped her get to where she is, but the fact is that she had been sinned against time and time again, and that a huge part of why she is on the street. I gave her my phone number and told her that if she had any concrete needs I could help her with to call me… if she didn’t know where her next meal was coming from, I could bring her some food. I haven’t heard from her, hopefully she’s ok.
I’m telling this not to say that I’ve done such a great job of helping them…. in fact, I don’t know if I really did anything that will change their situation long-term. But the thing is, it’s really changed me. Listening to them, hearing a bit of their stories made them become real people to me, not just faceless bodies holding signs, cluttering up my suburban streets. These were real women who had been victims of injustice, abuse, and isolation. They were hurting, and they genuinely need a break.
Some of you might be wondering if I had my kids with me when this happened, and yes, I did. The first two times I had both kids in the car with me, so I just parked and left them in their car seats, locked the car, and walked down to the sidewalk to talk to the girls. This last time I just had Evelyne with me, and I was parked in a place where I wouldn’t be able to see the car from the sidewalk, so I brought her with me. Do I think these women were dangerous? That they wanted to snatch my children? That they were some kind of threat to us? Not at all. I don’t think I would have done it if it hadn’t been women, particularly pregnant women. Of course every time it happens, Evelyne asks me a million questions about what’s going on. I tell her that that woman is sad because she doesn’t have a house or any food. Jesus wants us to help people who are sad and hungry, and that because we love Jesus, we’re going to help her get some food and talk to her so she won’t be sad anymore. And as much as her 3 year-old brain can, I think she gets it. Because amazingly, in some situations, it is that simple. And I want her to have formational memories like this, to grow-up in an environment where helping people is normal and expected, to develop love for the poor. I want her to have a soft heart toward those people holding signs when she encounters them throughout her life. I want it to be normal for her.
More to come later….