I have stepped into a parallel dimension where everything looks just like it always does, but is in fact backwards.
A scientific review of the facts proves me out:
- It is late in the afternoon, nearly evening, and the house is totally quiet. Everyone is asleep: Pastor Mom, my wife, my niece’s baby.
- The sun is rapidly setting in the pale almost-winter sky and, somewhere in the neighborhood, a rooster is crowing its coxcomb off.
- A homeless man banged on the screen door of the parsonage a little while ago and asked for water. I gave him a bottle. Did he need any food? No. He held up a plastic bag to show me he has a raw, frozen chicken.
See what I mean? Backwardville.
I really don’t care about naptime or the crazy rooster. The homeless guy is what’s been bugging me.
We know him quite well. He’s a fixture in the neighborhood. He’s not an old guy by any means, although he’s no longer young. He struggles with a lot of things. Inner demons. Anger management issues. He’s been in trouble with the law, but only minor stuff.
His family lives just across the fence. But he had to sleep outdoors on the grass or elsewhere because his grandmother wouldn’t allow him to stay in the house. Recently, she passed away. He stayed in the house for a few days. Then his mother kicked him out again.
The men’s room at the church is accessible only from the outside. We usually leave it open even when the church is locked up tight so that our homeless guy has a place to go pee. But we know that some nights, when the temperature dips down into the 30s, he sleeps in there.
After church, we are relaxing in the living room at the parsonage. I am online as always and Pastor Mom is enjoying a bowl of posole. Suddenly, we hear shouting. I remove my headphones to better hear what is going on. Across the fence, a horrific argument is in process. A man’s voice. A woman’s voice. Then the man’s voice again, still louder, punctuated with profanity.
We call the county sheriffs. Their recorded message says “if this is an emergency, call 911.” As soon as we do, we see the cop car come around the corner. Apparently, someone else called first.
We see an officer in a sheriff’s uniform get out of the cruiser. Then quietness resumes. We wonder if anyone is going to jail.
Later, we learn what happened. Our homeless guy’s family allowed him to spend a night with a roof over his head. There wasn’t much food around, so he used all the money on his Food Stamp card to buy groceries for the house. And then his mother kicked him out again.
Now our friend has neither shelter nor food. A loud argument ensues. The sheriffs are called. They calm everyone down and order our friend to leave. It’s not his house; he has no right to be there.
No one was arrested. There’s nothing they can do, say the cops. It wasn’t a domestic violence situation and no battery occurred.
Just after 7 a.m., the doorbell rings. My wife and I are still sleeping. Pastor Mom goes to the door and talks to our homeless guy. She lets him in and serves him coffee and toast. They have a long talk.
Pastor Mom has a history of years of counseling our friend. He used to write to her when he served part of a misdemeanor sentence in one of California’s fire camps. So she is not surprised to learn that he wishes he could turn his life around. Why can’t I have a warm place to live? He wonders why one day he can stay with his family and the next he is stuck in the cold, wet grass all night. Why don’t I have a wife and family to whom I can come home and have dinner each night?
And what of the woman who came to the door last week asking for food? We raided our cupboards to prepare her a grocery bag full of cans and boxes. Does she have the same questions about where her life went off the rails?
It’s all about making bad choices and then being unable to escape from the vicious cycle of consequences. I don’t know what choices this gentleman made early in his life and how they have continued to affect him. But so many of the homeless suffer from mental illnesses and substance abuse. Even those who weren’t addicted or mentally ill when they first became homeless often end up that way due to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of everyone from the public to law enforcement to fellow homeless people.
What the homeless really need is not our sympathy. They need homes. But how to obtain a roof over your head when you have no money? And who will hire the homeless to give them the funds and self-esteem they need to provide themselves with the basic necessities of life? In filling out a job application, how does one account for an employment gap of three years living on the street? What if the only clothes you have to wear to an interview are torn, soiled and full of holes? What if you have body odor because you have no place to wash up? As I said, who will hire the homeless?
I hand a homeless man a cold bottle of water. Then I quickly close and lock the door.
I return to my internet and my music but I cannot concentrate. All I can think of is the man with his raw, frozen chicken and nowhere to cook it. Essentially, he has nothing to eat when we just finished making a big batch of vegetable soup.
I rip off my headphones and head out the door. But I know I will not find him. He is probably long gone, two or three blocks over, contemplating where he will sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he’ll be sitting at one of the picnic tables at the taqueria across the street.
As soon as I step out, I see him. He is sitting on one of the old pews right next to the locked church door. Munching a sleeve of saltine crackers and sipping the water I gave him.
I ask him in for some hot vegetable soup. We just made it, I tell him. He politely declines.
That’s when I notice that the worn, dirty jacket he is wearing is emblazoned with the logo of the U.S. Marines.
Please visit Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home. Meet Joy, Craig, Antonio, Andre, Wolf, Shaggy and the others as they try to hold it together on the streets in the Canadian winter. Find out what happened to Serge and Claude when they ended up in the hospital last month. And discover how it all began, when Dennis was advised not to give money to panhandlers because all they do is spend it on booze. And how he ignored this advice and changed the world.