Few days go by when I don't interact with a homeless person. It's not as if I seek them out or wear a shirt that says "Hi. Talk to me." I have either been asked for money or to use my cell phone more times than I could possibly count. A young, caucasian male dressed in clean clothes listening to his iPod going to and from campus, I more than likely am a proverbial shirt that says "Hi. Talk to me."
The only thing that separates me from them is paychecks. If I was to stop being paid, eventually I would wind up in their position. Many, if not most of them are veterans of wars. The government doesn't like to to pay the VA benefits to their veterans and college students, which I know from experience.
Another difference between them and I is they often have little to no constructive networking. In other words, they have either never had or have somehow developed a network of friends and acquaintances who do not support, encourage them, or help them out of being homeless in any way. Often the darkness of their situation is shrouded by a mental disability, addiction of some kind, anger issue, or the most detrimental of all, they simply do not believe that they could ever become a functioning part of society or their families ever again.
Let me share just a few of their stories, but you'll have to imagine the smell of weeks-old cigarette smoke, blackened, marred teeth and beyond dirty clothing yourself.
Juni was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1963, a year after my parents. The moment he found out I had done a year of active duty Air Force, his eyes lit up and he told me about how his Dad was in the Air Force and retired as a Chief Master Sergeant after 22 years of working on planes, C-17's and C-5's. Juni then thanked me for serving, saying he appreciated me giving up parts of my life "for my country" and said he admired my courage, finishing by telling me he couldn't ever join the military, they would've torn him apart. His dad used to come home and make him stand at parade rest as he gave his homework assignments to him. My throat caught as he stood up from the stool and did an imitation of it for me. It was a perfect parade rest stance, every detail dead-on to the point that Juni's eyes looked straight forward, unmoving.
I'm sure whatever he went through as a child was more rigorous than what I did in basic training.
He smiled and asked me about my family, and for an hour we swapped stories over several pool games. I came from a family of six kids, he had two sisters and was up in Denver visiting his Mother's grave and had spent several weeks at a relative's home in Aurora. It came time to leave, I had school the next day, so we walked downstairs and outside into the cool air. Juni walked beside me, and as we passed a couple of businessmen who'd stepped outside for a smoke, Juni asked politely if he could have a smoke. With nothing more than pure disdain written across his clean-cut features, one of the men took a long draw and said "you can have the rest of this when I'm done with it."
On a daily basis Juni is spoken to, treated, and glanced at this way, probably dozens of times. Society has developed several scenarios for what the situation of each homeless person is, and whether or not they are liars or tell the truth, whether or not they smell good or just okay, whether they're young or old, we put them into a category and there they remain.
John had served for six years in the Army, part of the 11-Bravo Infantry unit, back in the seventies. He had been barely making it for several years, but when the VA stopped sending his checks it was a matter of weeks and he was on the street. From April of 2009 to March of 2010 he struggled, living on West Colfax street, staying in shelters during the winter and somehow the days passed through the spring, summer and fall. Mid-March Restoration Community Church held a huge feast for the homeless in his area for Easter, and he joined, connecting with a young married couple who were serving that Sunday. Something clicked, and they were friends. Calls were made, his situation explained, and by mid-April he received his money for the past year of benefits that hadn't been paid out. The first thing he did was check into a small motel and get cleaned up, taking a hot shower and enjoying a night's sleep on a real bed before following up with the government the next day about possibly moving into subsidized housing. That night several people from Colfax street who'd been watching him and heard from someone that he'd finally been paid mugged him. One came at him with a baseball bat, hitting him in the head. He grabbed the bat, threw it away, and started struggling with the young male that was beating him. The attacker called for a friend who came up behind John and hit him on the back of his head with a hammer. For three days he laid in the hospital first unconscious then in a chemically induced coma as the doctors monitored the three pools of blood that formed in his brain, trying to decide whether or not they should operate. I met him at a dinner for our church volunteers two days after he'd been released from the hospital. The young couple filled in the parts of the story to me, and his responses were "it's all good" and "I'm just thankful I'm alive and I get to be here with you folks. God is good."
It was 8:30 at night, I was coming home on the light rail after Saturday night church. My stop is 30th and Downing Street station, the last stop on the D-line that goes through downtown. It's right in the middle of what's known as Five Points, once called the "Amsterdam of the West." I stepped off and watched three cop cars come screaming up, peeling to a stop and jumping out as an ambulance sped off in the opposite direction, lights wailing and sirens flashing. A woman was hysterical as she was led to the second ambulance in handcuffs and put in the back doors accompanied by a police woman.
As I waited for my bus, several officers being led by an individual walked right next to where I was standing. "What exactly did you see?"
"I looked over and saw the woman push the man away, then as he moved towards her she stabbed him in the chest. Look, here's all the blood."
I turned my iPod up and gave them the privacy of the conversation, their note taking, flashlights skimming the concrete and red splashes and rapid-fire questions dancing as the music surrounded me. I knew and know nothing about what had happened or who was involved. But I do know one thing.
I need Jesus just as much or more as every one of those people.
I cannot fill the needs of these people, but something John said in his slow, gravelly and soft voice has always stuck with me. "Just throw us hard-up people a peace sign or something. That's all we need. Sure we need a lot more, but if you can't give us anything just hook us up with a smile." I put myself in his, Juni's, or anyone else's position, and the same smile I'd give my brother when he asks for me to buy him a lego set would make all the difference.
Love. I look at Michael and say "No, I can't" but when I do it's with love and sincerity. Love and compassion are not material things, they're what Jesus has asked of us and what He's given you and I more of than we could ever imagine.
I challenge you to remember that and look past your discomfort.
Next time you're approached or walk by a homeless person, instead of avoiding eye contact hoping they don't ask you for money, look at them and smile. If they do ask you for money, respond politely and sincerely with compassion, but don't take from them their dignity.
Love them just like Jesus loves you.