I will never forget him, though this happened years ago.
We took a group of teens on an inner-city missions trip in Washington D.C. We partnered with a group called the Center for Student Missions, now called City Service Mission, which worked with many different types of serving ministries in the D.C. area.
To start the week, they took us to the National Mall and dropped us off for a couple of hours. Each chaperone had a group of about five kids. Our assignment? To interview four people on the subject of homelessness. These people were a guard at one of the tourist attractions, a D.C. policeman, a tourist, and a homeless person
My attitude was not great. I hate this sort of thing. But what could I do? I had to make the kids think I was on board with the assignment.
Finding the first three was easy and we had great conversations, but that homeless person? I had visions of the kids enthusiastically going up to someone and saying, “Hi, you look homeless!”
Who would be appropriate to approach? The kids looked to me to lead. I told them, “I have no clue how to find someone to interview. Let’s just walk and pray.”
As we took a few steps, I see a man in the distance seated on some steps and holding up a cardboard sign.
“Let’s walk over there,” I said.
As we got closer to the sign, I could read it.
“I am homeless,” it said.
“Do you think that’s the person, Kim?”
“Yep, I believe that’s what you call a clear sign.”
The kids were afraid to approach him, so I walked up to him, introduced myself, and told him what we were doing.
“Would you share your thoughts about homelessness with us?” I asked.
And thus began about a 30-minute conversation with this man who very eloquently and honestly told us about his experience with homelessness.
He began by telling the kids that probably 90% of the homeless have substance abuse issues, often in combination with mental health issues. He said that finding food and shelter in D.C. was relatively easy, but finding substance abuse and mental health treatment was next to impossible.
To add to the issue, if you were lucky enough to get on the waiting list for treatment, often by the time it was your turn, they couldn’t find you. People could only stay in a specific shelter for a certain period of time.
The man told us substance abuse was why he became homeless. He had finally gotten into a program and was now clean. I believed him.
He told us about the fears and dangers the homeless face regularly. He talked about being asked to leave the warm public library because he had worn out his welcome or because the homeless frightened the other patrons. He spoke about the violence faced regularly.
One of the kids asked why he panhandled instead of finding a regular job.
“I make more money doing this,” he said, “and I’m trying to save up six months of expenses before I rent an apartment. I almost have it all saved.”
As he told his story to the kids, he began to roll up the “I am homeless” sign. It fit. He was homeless, but as he continued to talk to us, he proved to be so much more. That kind and articulate man changed our perspective that day.
I believe that encounter may have also changed was his own. I could see he knew he described the issues well and we had heard him. He was proud of himself. He should have been. He was an expert on the subject, and we were interested. The years he had spent being homeless had value. He was a great advocate for others like him. We parted with hugs and enthusiastic thanks.
Those moments invigorated these kids. I paid attention to them throughout the week. Not one of them complained again about having to get up early to serve breakfast to the homeless. These people they served now had faces.
Our thirty-minute encounter with this stranger changed us. I still think of him from time to time and wonder how he fared. Did he get the apartment and the more traditional job? Did he stay away from the substances that were a demon in his life? I lament there was no easy way to keep in touch back then. But he will never be forgotten.
We often discount people because we believe we know “their kind.” Maybe we are wrong. Perhaps “their kind” is what we see looking back in the mirror, with one difference. We’re luckier.
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