How did I get there? That was the question, I never thought I’d find myself in a situation like this. Standing at a street light holding my sign… needing the help of strangers. I tried to stay positive I pushed the corners of my mouth up into a semblance of a smile and did my best imitation of a human.
Before walking out to my spot I had found a friend who had found a nice church group by the South 1st Street Bridge, he swallowed down a bite of the taco they gave him, “Hey man, go get some, they’re giving it away, no hassle and they’re not preaching at you.”
I went and got in line and they had so much food, enough to feed everyone, “What would you like?” asked a smiling face at the taco truck. Something in her eyes, the giving, she looked at me like I was human, and seeing all that food, I broke down.
I tried to hold it together but some tears rolled down my cheeks. “Do you have bacon and cheese?”
She looked deeper in my face and then carefully looked around, she slipped two tacos in my hands, “Now go get some coffee sir, it’ll help take the chill off.” She held my gaze for a brief moment, I couldn’t respond, for fear of sobbing right there for the heart of this woman. I looked away and focused on my feet so that I could force out a, “God bless you ma’am.” before the emotion could hijack my words.
Some folks were gathering near a table so I took my hot coffee and tacos (well what was left of them as I had wolfed through all of one and was trying to savor the second) over to see what was going on.
There was a man talking about homelessness and how God could help people to get out of homelessness. He was talking about a book he wrote and he was really into it. It was nice to see his passion and someone who cared so much. I listened to him for a while but then I knew I needed to get to my spot so I could take advantage of the rush hour traffic and get at more people.
So there I was, college education, even a master’s but at a the corner of Caesar Chavez and South 1st, with my sign, at least my belly was full and the warmth of the coffee would probably hold on until the sun came up and warmed us all. I started on one side of the street and had a little bit of success with the folks stopped at the light but I realized that I could reach more by standing in the median. I tried to hold my sign high, and with pride, and like I said the corners of my mouth pushed up in the brightest smile I could muster and forced eye contact with the drivers.
So many drivers just looked away, pretended they couldn’t see me, but I noticed their quick glances, sideways looks at something (not someone) they didn’t want to believe was real. Others would at least smile and wave, and the warmth I felt was from more than the coffee, those smiles, those waves, made me feel human at least, it felt good to be noticed.
But the good ones, the ones I really needed were those that rolled windows down to exchange a “hello” at least or a “good morning.” Those quick kind words were worth more to me than any money I could hope to get, but the transactions that passed through those open windows were also very much what I needed.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows though, there were some honks, some middle fingers, some scowling dirty looks, as if I was there by choice, as if I didn’t have to be there by the street, cars rushing by depending on the kindness of strangers. One man decided to go past mere gestures or looks.
It was right after I was chatting with four twenty something girls, they had all the windows down and music was pumping to the outside world. I looked inside and saw all four girls dancing, I started grooving to their music and walked up. They giggled and laughed as they saw me dance up to the car. Some good mornings passed and they asked what I was doing, “Stop light dance party,” I replied as I reached back in time to my high school days of doing the wave.
“That’s so cool that you’re so happy,” came through the music from the back seat as they laughed and then a quick transaction through the window right before the light turned green.
The next car slowed despite the green light and the dark tinted window of the shiny new truck rolled down. The first thing out the window was anger, “What the #$%# do you think you’re doing?”
“Sir?” I was a little startled by the sudden shift in moods.
“Bothering people, out here begging for help…. it’s disgusting.”
The traffic was backing up behind him, for some reason it made me nervous that traffic was getting held up. “I’m sorry sir, I understand, may God bless you on your journey.” Cars were starting to honk behind him.
“God bless me? I go to church for my blessing! #$#^ you, you piece of trash, get off the street!” I had to jump back quickly away from the car as he squealed off. The cars behind went past as sluggishly as I was recovering from the verbal assault.
A little shaken but still needing people the corners of my mouth were a little heavier as I lifted them to what hopefully looked like a smile. Honestly though, it wasn’t long before a real smile was there because so many folks stopped and smiled and waved and gave what they could through their windows, sometimes just a kind word, but those who witnessed what the man had said were extra kind.
Then after the light changed again and a fresh batch of strangers was before me it was back to the routine. Eye contact, smile, lift sign, wave… sometimes smiles and waves returned sometimes not… sometimes more cursing, sometimes just indifference.
After a couple hours traffic thinned and I knew it was time to take my sign and leave. I walked back to where the tacos were and several people thanked me for being there, my friend who told me about the tacos in the first place especially, “Thanks man, it means a lot that you all came out here for us.”
You see I wasn’t panhandling for money, but for awareness. My sign a tool of the young folks on social media a hashtag… indicating #WELCOME HOMELESS.
The man I heard talk was Alan Graham who founded Community First Village to help people get themselves out of homelessness. This event was attended by volunteers, formerly homeless folks, as well as some folks still trying to work out of homelessness.
The transactions that occurred through the windows were me handing little business cards detailing the book that Alan had just written about the need we all have to be connected to God, as well as some stories of homelessness and recovery. The conversations you just read were all real, even the angry man, and honestly my heart broke for him. Regardless of his opinion, that much anger makes me worry for a person and I pray for him. Part of me wanted to curse back at him and meet his anger with some vengeful and eloquent cursing of my own (I am a talented and creative cusser from my time in the Army: recovering cusser of course) but something about his anger moved me to grace rather than anger. For all those who didn’t understand our message I hope they find what can help them find some joy.
At any rate the story isn’t exactly over there, I decided that I wanted to continue spreading the message. I was at the Lady Bird Lake running trail already, and I wasn’t ready to go to work yet.
I ran the trail with my sign. I ran past most of the folks who participated and they all cheered, I ran past the corner I had occupied, and throughout the whole trail I got smiles, thumbs up, and peace signs (there may have been some who wanted to flip the bird but they didn’t have a car to protect them from real life). I was thinking along the trail about homelessness and the times I’ve been less than a paycheck away from losing my place, the times I’ve slept in my truck because of choices I’d made (the same sort of choices that put me a week out of getting kicked out of apartments) and was too embarrassed to ask family for help.
I thought about the angry people and how pleased I was that I responded in grace and not anger, then I was nearly done with my run and I saw my vehicle parked. Heat flashed on the back of my neck…. I realized I still don’t know anything.
I walked up to my jeep that cost more than lots of people will see in a few years if not decades of working, the jeep that would take me back to my heated and air conditioned apartment for a hot shower before going to my challenging, rewarding, and well paying job. I realized that it was easy for me to respond to anger with grace because I wasn’t hungry and in desperate need of food or shelter, because I hadn’t faced the same anger and rejection every morning as I tried to survive the streets of the city. I once again was faced with my hypocrisy. I was a tourist of homelessness, I was trying to help, but I still hadn’t really experienced anything.
I got a new respect for my friends out at the Community First Village and a greater respect for Alan who started the whole thing. I still haven’t read his book, but it’s on my list, I’ve gotta get through “The Shack” and then I’ll be nose deep in Welcome Homeless.
So, hypocrite? Yes, did I make a huge difference? No, but neither of those aspects of this day will stop me from trying. The only false thing about this story was that my smile was forced, the entire time I was out there I was so filled with the love I have for God and His gift of confidence to me to get out and try that I was beaming and probably almost glowing with joy.
The bible verses that really stick to me on these times are obvious,
John 21:17– Feed my sheep.
Matthew 25:40– Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.