Living On The Streets

The last time I saw Ricky, he was in a wheelchair on the sidewalk of The Gospel Mission in the dead of winter. As I hurried past him on my way to feed the homeless, something made me turn back and ask him where he was going and did he need a push. He was layered in heavily stained clothes with only wrapped cloths on his twisted feet. He did not look well and seemed a bit disoriented with a pained look on his face. He said he was looking for shoes and did I happen to know where he could find any. I wheeled him into the front office and asked Kip, who works the front desk, if he could help us find a pair. He said he would look upstairs, but it was typical for the homeless to go to the store down the street. He needed a size10. Ricky looked at me with desperation in his tired drooping eyes told me he lost his ID because his wallet was stolen. A women standing nearby overheard our conversation and chimed in with a how-to on navigating the system. She apparently knew what to do and I asked her if she worked here. She said she was a hooker and let out a uproarious laugh, as her eyes twinkled. Thankfully Kip returned with two different pairs of shoes for Ricky to try on. One pair fit perfectly, the brown athletic ones. We laced them up and Ricky gasped with a sigh of relief. His face shone as tears began to well up in his eyes and roll down his cheeks - he was grateful. For now he had what he needed and all was well in his world. I asked him if he would be back for dinner in about an hour because I would be on the lookout for him.

As the men assembled and took their seats - at The Gospel Mission my eyes darted around the crowded room searching for Ricky. Ahhh, there he was, looking calmer now in his wheelchair, sporting his new brown athletic shoes. I smiled as I approached him and gave him a plate of hot food. I told him to take care and I’ll see him again in a few days when I return. He appeared so vulnerable and fragile when I first saw him on the sidewalk, in a wheelchair without shoes on his battered feet. Now, he had hot food in his belly to warm and comfort him and he was grateful and content once again.

Every night since that cold November day, I’ve searched the room for him and even asked a few of the homeless men if they knew of Ricky or saw him around. No one did or seemed to really care. That was the last time I saw him at the Mission. I often think of him and the impact he made on my life in the brief time we had together. His only desire at that moment was a pair of shoes to protect his feet. I’ve often wondered what happened to him and the series of events that got him in the wheelchair, on the sidewalk near the Mission, in the first place. I was hoping to get to know him better and felt we would have much to talk about. I wanted to hear his story, hear about his success and pain, the people he loved, the mistakes he made, the challenges he faced. The choices he made or failed to make. I wanted to peer inside his soul and reach down deep and touch the common bond we all share called humanity. Even though we were surrounded by chaos and the many distractions of the street noise (rumbling of the downtown railroad tracks, the clamor of the nearby bus station) all faded into the background as we connected.

One day I feel certain we are destined to meet again in this life or the next, and I will see Ricky skipping down a beautiful new street in a different pair of shiny shoes made just for him. I wonder about the men who wore those old tattered athletic shoes before Ricky, who they belonged to and what their lives were like.

I believe we have a choice - to look for the lesson even in the seemingly bad decisions we’ve made, and to remember to try on a different pair of shoes once in awhile. We can experience a new way of thinking about our lives and those we encounter along the way, free of judgements. Even if it’s just for a brief moment, we can make a difference. We can choose to walk down a different street and be a light in someone else’s darkness.

Living On The Streets

Jeff reminds me of someone you might meet at a beach in Southern California. He strikes me as a surfer guy who just finished waxing his board and is preparing to catch the next wave. Having lived in Southern California for over twenty years, I feel somewhat qualified to make this distinction. His face is golden tan and somewhat leathery and his short straight hair is streaked with shades of blonde. The difference is that this is December in Northern Nevada and we are in a homeless dining room.

His demeanor is so cheerful and he always greets me with a smile - he is a beacon of light in this sometimes dreary place of 75-85 homeless hungry men. Jeff shares that he is from Kentucky and will be going back home as soon as he can get some money saved for a bus ticket. He later tells me that his family will be wiring him some money and he hopes to be home by Christmas. We talk often during the next month and a half and I see him regularly at the Mission dining room where I volunteer. His nature is so sweet and positive and he never utters an unkind word about anything. Unlike some of the other men who grumble, frown or stare at their plate hungry, tired and beaten, he appears to stay in a state of gratitude with a knowing of some kind which is foreign to many of those around him. It causes me to pause and reevaluate my own nature.

After Christmas I see him at the dining room once more, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a dream that offers him hope and gives him a reason to go on. I remain steadfast in my desire to offer these homeless people some peace and relaxation for the mere 30 minutes of warmth they have here each night - that is, if they are lucky enough to get there name on the list. It’s a modest reprieve from the harshness that seems to permeate outside these walls.

It is now early January and I look for Jeff, but he’s not to be found. For the first time, I’m overjoyed that I cannot find someone I know! A man sitting at one of the tables stops me and says, I thought you’d like to know that Jeff made it home to Kentucky. The man says he was able to help Jeff accomplish it. My heart warms with the idea that they helped each other under these difficult conditions and the human spirit is ever present at these dining room tables. I am reminded that this place is such a dichotomy - there are those that are ashamed, depressed and downtrodden - contrasting with those that are happy like Jeff and built friendships and sharing a camaraderie with each other. This loving spirit seems to be the predominant one. At least that’s the way I choose to see it. I ask if he has a way to contact Jeff and to please let him know I was inquiring about him.

I am reminded that Jeff’s deep knowing and unwavering belief got him back to Kentucky and off the streets. He kept the prize in sight and banished the doubt that probably kept creeping back into his mind as he walked the streets at night. Jeff gave me joy each and every night I was able to serve him. It is this kind of extraordinary knowing that inspires me to never doubt the power of inspiration. Jeff continues to inspire me with his courage and commitment - the belief in his soul that he was on the road back home to the people he loved, and that made all the difference. I pause to contemplate that in many ways we are all on our own road back home to love - that place deep within each of us that is always there. We just have to believe it and tap into it.

Living On The Streets

Scott lives and works at the Mission and has committed to the rehab program offered there. He is one of 25 men that are hoping to complete this rigorous 15 month program which consists of bible study, homework and a job working in the kitchen, laundry or warehouse. More about the program later. His job is to work in the kitchen preparing the food not only for the homeless but for the people that live/work there. Approximately 1300 meals come out of this relatively small kitchen. This is where I met Scott when I started volunteering to feed the homeless.

He is small boned and thin in stature with large blood shot blue eyes. I feel his gaze upon me while I’m distracted by desserts oozing with chocolate displayed before me on large trays that I’m about to serve. I am not able to think of anything else except how beautifully decorated these cakes, pies and pastries are and how much I would love to dive into them. This is my weakness. I snap back into consciousness and ask what brought him to this place and he replies that he had a Meth addiction. I respond with...well I have an addiction to sweets. We smile at each other with grins from ear to ear and I notice some of his teeth are missing and badly stained. I think to myself that this must be from the meth and hard life on the streets. In spite of this, he has an easy way about him and we begin serving food to the homeless side by side. He tells me about his daughter that he is going to visit soon and his autistic son, who both live with their mother. His son seldom speaks with him when he visits and runs and hides from Scott. He is sure that he is angry at Scott for all that has happened. He quickly changes the subject and asks if I’d like to have coffee sometime. He says he has a free hour so I accept his invitation because I want to hear his story of what led him to the Mission. We decide to meet the following week at a nearby downtown corner grocery mart that used to be an old working gas station where some rusted pumps still remain.

It’s a just before 9 am on a Thursday and I navigate my shiny sports car into the small parking lot, which is buckled and cracked from age. The store looks abandoned but I quickly decide its not as a few haggard-looking people walk in and out. I momentarily question if I should lock my doors. Im about a block from the Mission, hoping this will all be okay. Off to my left I spot a young black man aimlessly walking about and kicking a small yellow wrapped packaged with his foot. The package looks like it was once a sandwich from a fast food chain. I can’t help but wonder if this is his lunch and he’s throwing it on the ground? Did he find it by accident or was it given to him? And why does he seem so amused by it as he kicks it back and forth, immersed in this endless game. The young man certainly gives this yellow package a lot of attention and never takes his eyes off of it except to crossed the street. He aimlessly ambles down the street and I momentarily lose sight of him. I look in my side mirror and there he is again, doing the same mindless repetitive action and at least 15 minutes pass by as he kicks this thing up and down the street. It’s reminiscent of kick-the-can I played as a kid so long ago in the streets of Chicago, having fun and carefree with friends. This person has a much different demeanor. He appears bored, hopeless, and just passing time with no particular direction and looks displaced and lost. I ponder what else I might see happen on this street as I sit there silent and watching in middle of downtown among the homeless population. Sirens scream by and suspicious characters roam around my car. I feel uneasy and out of sorts and I try to imagine what I might observe if I stay there for 24 hours instead of 15 minutes. Where is Scott?

Through the windshield I see Scott bounding down the old street and we happily wave at each other. He jumps into my car and off we go to get coffee at a coffeehouse near the river. As we walk along the river sipping our hot drinks he starts telling me about his life and growing up in Detroit. His parents usually had drugs and alcohol around the house so it seemed normal to him to get high and he remembers smoking marijuana with his dad. Most days Scott went to school very high at age tender age of only 9. This was the norm, he said - I was shocked. Alcohol and marijuana were drugs of choice then and easily accessible.

A breaking point crisis in his life happened when he was about 11 or 12. His only sister that he was extremely closed to was killed by a drunk driver’s car when she was 18. The loss and the pain of this devastation caused him to spiral into a deep depression and turned to drugs with a vengeance. He became heavily addicted to Meth. At one point he was admitted to the hospital as he struggled for his life with numerous seizures from Meth and overdosing. The diagnosis was thought to be brain tumor, which was later discovered to be a blood clot in his brain brought on by all the Meth he was heavily using. Later he got married and moved to California and had a son who is now18 and autistic and a daughter who is now 12. They live with their mother in Northern Nevada. After the divorce, his addiction got worse and he began living in his car that he later blew up from racing and abuse. After that, he ended up living and sleeping in a warehouse somewhere downtown. My heart welled up with emotions as he continued to share his tragic story with me during this hour of coffee while walking along the river. I intuitively knew there were many like him.

While living in the warehouse he met a man who would prove to be instrumental in changing his life for the better. They became fast friends and formed a close bond. This man kept talking to Scott about God and he slowly started to recognize a higher purpose within himself though still obscure and not fully realized. In the face of fear one thing was clear to him - he had to be with his children in Nevada. The warehouse man was able to get Scott a bus ticket so he could do just that. This friend who he lived with in the warehouse was able to get Scott a bus ticket so he could do just that. This small act of kindness helped Scott regain his faith and to have a reason to seek higher ground. At 45, Scott is no longer homeless and is working hard at his recent recovery while working his program at the Mission. His lifeline is the Mission, which has helped regain his life and purpose. He graduates this December and I plan on being there, cheering him on his life quest and journey. Today, Scott is trying to reconnect with his friend and let him know how this bus ticket changed his life forever. I hope he does. That was the best hour I have spent with someone in quite awhile. Scott moved from fear to love- love for himself, which radiates outward as he continues to aim high and overcome the tragedies he has faced. I am blessed to know him. It’s 10 am and Scott has to be back at class ready for the challenges that await.

Five months later, the one hour coffee off-site from the Mission came back to haunt me. I was unprepared for what lie ahead. Unknowingly, I had broken a major rule at the Mission. That innocent act on my part was considered to be fraternizing with a member in the program. Rumors about that day spread like wildfire among the people who lived at the Mission. I was informed by a board member that sex was involved between Scott and me. This ineffable scandal was appalling to me and one in which I’m still reeling from. I explained my side of the story and was told that this may potentially mean that Scott could be removed from the program and I could be forced to leave the volunteer program. It was up to the board to decide. I expressed my concern for Scott and that he needed the program for his recovery and was too fragile to be out on the streets again. I suggested that if it came down to him or me, let it be me. The decision was later made that Scott would stay and I would no longer be able to volunteer there. This was a crushing blow to me and one that I was completely unprepared for.

My kindness seemed to have forsaken me, and everything I knew about the homeless was in question - including the program, the individuals I came to deeply know and their individual stories. I was shaken to my core. How could this happen to me? I was only trying to do some good and saddened that I would not be able to see my recovering friends, many of which I knew by name, or see them graduate. For reasons known only to Scott, it is believed he spread the rumors. I searched deep into my soul to find some forgiveness for this man. Surely, there was a reason or explanation for this craziness. When none came, I realized that his addictions were stronger at this moment than his recovery and I had to let it go.

But how could I? I was so invested with the care and compassion I have for the homeless, the program and the respect for those recovering there. All of the many personal heart wrenching stories I heard dissolved in that instant, and all I could think of was myself. Again, I returned to forgiveness because I know this is the path to free my heart and I began to send a silent blessing to this man. Many people at the Mission and other volunteers came to my aid and offered encouragement and support. The saddest of all is that Scott left the Mission on his own and just walked out one day. Worse, I won’t get to attend his graduation that I was so looking forward to. I pray he does not return to his addictions and that for the few short months he was at the Mission, he was able to gain strength and peace to fight this foe.

Living On The Streets

In November, I met Harold who volunteers at the Mission. Harold is 70, with wavy hair sprinkle with some gray. His health is not the best and I usually see him with a yellowed piece of cotton wedged in his right ear. He lives in a monthly motel downtown near the Mission. The motel is run down and not very clean, as he describes it, and has a bug problem which is out of control. He explains that sometimes he is bitten by these bugs and his apartment is infested with mice. He is angry that management is trying to raise his rent even though the place is borderline condemned. I’m in a state of shock and appalled by the conditions he describes. He is looking for another place, which has its challenges since he has to take the bus wherever he goes and often what is listed in the newspaper is not as described. I try to convince him to move out of downtown area, where rents would be cheaper and he could ride the bus to the Mission. I reason that what he saves on rent would be offset by the other expenses he may incur. I offer to help him research apartments online and to drive him around to view apartments within his price range. His budget is $650/month. We exchange phone numbers and arrange a time to meet the following week. Since he doesn’t have a computer or online access, I am able to find 5 or 6 available apartments and print them out to share with him - otherwise he wold have to go to the library or check free newspapers.

He lives at the motel with a friend, Michael, whom he has been taking care of for about 5 or 6 years. He feels a sense of responsibility about him which I don’t completely understand. According to Harold, Michael has health issues, meth addiction, gambling addiction and a hoarding problem too. He worries about him and wishes he was able to get help for Michael. It appears to very complex and he cannot just kick him out onto the street.

Harold has been volunteering at the Mission since 2013, which doesn’t surprise me as everyone knows his name including the staff and a few of the homeless people. I am reminded of the sitcom, Cheers, where everybody knows your name. Except this is quite different from a bar setting! I know Harold feels comfortable here and somewhat at home. I couldn’t help but notice the special bond between him and all of the men in the program. He addresses everyone by name and greets them with kind words that are personal and special to them. When his budget permits he bring he brings extra cigarettes for the guys to share, cans of chewing tobacco and stamped envelopes so they can write letters home. I’m sure he doesn’t have extra money to spare but shares what he has freely without any expectations. He volunteers at the Mission 5 nights a week and plays cards and chess with the guys that live there. I wonder if perhaps he was once in a program for some addiction, which is why he has an affinity for the guys and their needs. He responds that he doesn’t have any addictions and has never smoked, used drugs or alcohol in his life. I’ve since learned that he does like to gamble and is bi-polar. I’m intrigued as to why he spends so much time at the Mission. Maybe the many years he spent in foster homes brings a kinship to the environment he experiences at the Mission. His keen sense of humor and happily-go-lucky demeanor seems to transcend whatever problems he may have. Without looking up, I always know it’s Harold from across the room because of his thick distinctive Baltimore accent which always makes me smile and I can’t help but tease him. I truly like Harold and his personality and hope this may be the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

Harold was born in 1947. He never knew his father. What’s most remarkable about Harold is that he lived the first 18 years of his life in foster homes - beginning at the tender age of 3. He has little memory of his father who walked out on him and his little sister, leaving them behind with his mother who had severe mental issues and was incapable of caring for either of them. Since this took place in the early1950’s his only sibling was adopted quickly by another family and Harold was immediately sent to foster homes. Sadly, they never saw his sister again since that dreadful day and they were never reunited. He struggled to find her, but in those days very little was known or shared about the adoptive parents and these matters were typically kept secretive. During those18 years, he was mistreated and abused, not only by the foster parents but by some of the other foster children that lived there too. He wonders if it was because he is gay. He lived among many unstable and dysfunctional foster chider and was beaten frequently by these children for being gay. He had no other family around to help him or care for him. One day he told me that the foster parents only did it for the money, another crushing blow which hurt him to his core. The more kids they had the more money they would get for each one. His foster father would beat him and the other kids repeatedly with a closed fist and was reported to authorities for this abhorrent action, but nothing was ever done about it. Even more shocking, this was a Jewish foster home. When he turned 18 the money stopped coming in for him, so he had to leave the foster home. I asked him about his grandparents or cousins, there had to be some other family around to help him...he never really answered my question. Both of his biological parents are deceased now and he was not able to attend his biological father’s funeral because he didn’t find out until after the fact. He was deeply saddened by that. In contrast, his foster parents are also deceased now and while he did attend their funerals, it’s not surprising he never shed a tear. As expected, when he turned 18, the money stopped coming in for him at the foster home, so he had to leave, which wasn’t hard to do since the beatings would also cease. He left Baltimore for New York to live with his foster aunt and uncle. There he attended college and life was much better until his foster aunt and uncle discovered he was gay. They kicked him out, so he want to Greenwich Village and there he entertained may lovers and relationships - most not very stable and abusive. Throughout his life he was beaten and oppressed for one reason or another, and mistreated mostly because he was gay. In his heavy New York accent he describes how one of the foster kids tried to strangle him because he found out Harold was gay. Harold always says funny things when you least expect it. He laughs as he blurts out stories from his past with his heavy New York accent. Over the ensuing months we have stayed in contact and I was able to assist him with online resumes and help him get a job at Taco Bell.

What struck me most about Harold was his attitude of forgiveness and lack of bitterness toward his past or anyone in his life. His willingness to help others and be of good cheer despite his early beginning as a child and into his youth were both astonishing and inspiring to me. I believe he chose to see the good in others with a heavy dose of forgiveness in his heart. I am reminded of a poem “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it” - Mark Twain. If ever there was a person who exemplifies this poem it would be Harold.

Jeanie, Sherry and Cheryl
Living On The Streets

Jeanie walks into the Mission for dinner sporting a bright blue sock hat and and a mismatched coat with childlike gloves. A few strands of straw- like silver hair peaks out in all directions around the hat. Her wind blown hair and outfit is punctuated by dark sunglasses and it’s dinner hour at the Mission in January. She and I greet each other as I serve her a plate of food. She smiles a crooked smile and asks for milk. I can hardly understand her words and she speaks with a lisp through missing teeth. I pour milk into a white styrofoam cup and ask her how she’s doing tonight. She tells me she was assaulted outside the apartment building where she is currently living and how unsafe it is. She can’t believe how mean some people are so she must find another place. While she seems upset in a childlike way, she asks for a second helping of the dessert. As I lean in to pour more milk to go with her cake, I notice sticky tags are still on the lens of her sunglasses. These are the plastic kind that your supposed to peal off! I ask her if I can remove them for her and she says no, she likes to read between the lines. I burst out laughing and she does too. I tell her how very smart she is and she replies - I learn something new everyday!

To me Jeanie is a walking cliche, but she’s so original. Ohhhh to view the world through Jeanie’s glasses would probably look quite different than the world I would see around me. The next time I see her she looks a little different. The sunglasses are gone, and she has a different colored hat on. I’m reminded of a phrase I heard long ago...if you want to see things differently look through a different pair of glasses. Another way of saying it - if we change the way we look at things, and the things we look at change. In spite of her dismal surroundings and lifestyle, she manages to keep her sense of humor. As Winston Churchill said, “keep calm and carry on.” I would add, “eat cake whenever possible.” Jeanie certainly does both.

Later, I meet Sherry who wants to talk with me about her dad who passed away. She carries a picture of him next to her heart and shares the photo with me. She describes how he talks to her at night and she feels he is with her always. I tell her he loves her and anything is possible. I think to myself how wonderful it is that the thought of her dad gives her hope and helps her to carry on. She seems very sweet and I’m sad that she is homeless. Her voice is very tender and her actions are childlike. She asks when I’ll be back to the Mission again and hopes to talk more. That is the last time I saw Sherry.

Her friend sees me a week later and I ask her about what ever happened to Sherry. Her face tightens and she frowns and hopes to never see Sherry again because sweet Sherry robbed her blind and took everything she had, including food, makeup, coat, gloves and all of her possessions. She trusted Sherry as I did and was fooled by her. We are shocked and would never have guessed that Sherry, who seemed so sweet, would do something like this. This poor women had little to begin with and now even less. I feel so sorry for her as her huge blood shot eyes gaze into mine, searching to make some sense out of this. She says Sherry made the whole story up about her father and there is a side to her we didn’t see. I manage to console her about never giving up on people and to look for the good. She doesn’t appear to hear me and says she is looking for Sherry to get her things back. I secretly hope it’s not driven by revenge and regains some of the things that were stolen from her. Maybe she’ll discover a new way of looking at this situation and, metaphorically speaking don a new pair of sunglasses. Jeanie, when she peers through her’s, see the situation quite different.

Every time I go to the Mission to volunteer I hear countless stories similar to these. Like Cheryl, who just arrived to Reno via a truck, after hitchhiking a ride from back east. She wants to know what to do and where to spend the night. She lugs a huge back pack with all of her belongings bulging at the seams and looking like it could burst at any moment. I attempt to find a solution for her at the front desk. Expressionless, they tell me she has to put her name on a list, but it’s too late for that now and she’ll have to come back tomorrow afternoon. But she needs a place to sleep tonight I argue. Feeling helpless, I start to start to clear the tables of dirty plates and wipe them down in preparation for the men to arrive for their hot meals. Since it’s towards the end of January, I see more and more people coming to dinner and there are no seats left, in fact some people are turned away. Ive been told by other volunteers that as their social security checks run out at the end of the month they come here for a hot meal. As I look through my own different pair of glasses, what flashes before my inner screen are all the faces of these men and women. Sad faces, dirty faces, frightened faces and sometimes emotionless faces. I think about their mothers and fathers and people that they loved and loved them. Their personal stories and how they got to this place.

Living On The Streets

A homeless man walks into the dining room with long hair that is gnarled and twisted down the center of his back. He carries a guitar under his arm as he swaggers in and pulls out a chair to sit down. He’s very tall and jittery, his fingernails are thick and black underneath from dirt. After my initial shock at his appearance, my next thought is maybe it would calm him and the other 75 homeless men if he could play a relaxing song for the crowded room. I check with the staff first and they tell me he often gets vulgar when he sings, so I promise them I will talk with about that. I approach Larry and ask him if he would play a song for us after he finished eating. He says he will but says he uses bad words and the devil comes through him. By now I’m a little nervous and tell him he couldn’t do that here, but we would love to hear him just play a song and not sing at all. So Larry begins to play and you can hardly hear him over the clanging of the dishes and chairs moving in and out as people leave. No one seems to be listening, so I stand a little closer to hear him. His music is anything but relaxing and his words are barely audible which go something like this…" I have a court date at the court house”....as he drones on. Ugh! I can’t wait for it this to be over and promised myself to never do this again. I inwardly chuckle and think the devil must have been laughing his ass off at Larry and me.

A homeless women asks for some milk, and as I am about to pour some into her white styrofoam cup, she asked what the expiration date is. I look at the plastic container of milk and say it has a date of 3 days earlier. She is mortified and gasps and is not going to risk being sick, and how could we possibly serve milk that was 3 days old! On some level I understand her reasoning - that to be homeless and get food poisoning is not a good combination. Some women around are asking for seconds, but she will have nothing of it. So I offer her water. I remind myself of what a dichotomy this place is. There are those that are difficult, rude and talk nonsense. Those that have an air of entitlement and some who are ashamed, depressed and very fragrant. All of this is hugely contrasted by those that are happy, grateful, kind, loving and have built lasting friendships with one another.

By and large, I have found that there seems to be a pervasive, loving spirit of comradery which is the prevailing tone among them. I sense that I am growing in new ways right beside them. I am returning to my inner spirit my inner guidance, most importantly, my love for my fellow man in all of its disguises. I often remind myself not to judge which is sometimes difficult, and instead offer acceptance and send a silent blessing as often as I can. I have felt a connection with the homeless since I was a little girl growing up in Chicago - and it has never gone very far from my heart. At the mission I see some familiar faces and great them often with hugs that they initiate that I’m all too happy to return. I find myself thinking about these people more that I imagined I would long after I’ve returned home to my creature comforts. As I drift off to sleep I say…"there but for the grace of God go I.”

Andy’s Shadow
Living On The Streets

The guys that are working the program and living at the Mission will graduate in approximately 15 months. It’s an intensive recovery program to help many forms of addiction. Some are eager and earnest, others are serious and solemn. They are hard working men and each of them has an addiction in common. They must go through the 5 phase program and pass each of one before advancing to the next until graduation day. Along the way they are preparing for a deeper relationship with God. On this particular day the guys are in a lighthearted mood and singing along with the music blaring on the portable stereo in the background, while others are talking about the weekend approaching and how they will catch up on sleep since many start their workday at 4 AM. A few of the guys read and do homework and some lift weights or play cards when not working. Those that are further along in the program have free time and are allowed to see a movie or visit their wives, girlfriends, children or mothers. We are talking about these things happening as we prepare food for the homeless to arrive in about 30 minutes.

Conversations shift to upcoming graduations with excitement in September and December, and what their plans will be once they leave the program and start their lives anew. Anthony plans to get a job in the plumbing industry with hopes of getting into the plumbers union. Punky is going to be a chef and work at the local casino since he has learned his culinary skills at the program. Shaun is simply looking forward to moving back in with his mom. I have learned that part of the program is to teach them a skill transitioning back into society with an acquired skill as a sober person fully functioning person free of addiction. This rigorous program is spiritually based and focus driven. A required reading is: The Purpose Driven Life.

I meet Paul at 9 am to shadow him and learn more about kitchen operations which he manages, and to observe what a day may look like for these men in the program. Paul greets me with a half grin and his left eye is twitching uncontrollably as we head to office and he tells me about his life. He was once was a sous-chef in an upscale hotel and made upwards of six figures, all of which came crashing down as drugs and alcohol consumed his life. He was full of anger, rage contempt and constantly fought with everyone and could not shake the giant chip on his shoulder. That was 10 years ago. The program helped him immensely and changed his life. He is happily married now and his background as a chef helped him work his way up to manage the kitchen and teach others. He also runs the warehouse off site and teaches classes to the men at the program- gives them assignments and checks their homework. It’s hard to imagine Paul as he used to be, because the man I see in front of me now is kind, loyal and humble. As we tour the on site chapel, I experience a man who is dedicated to his own recovery and the recovery of the men who live and work there.

As the AM kitchen shift patiently awaits his instructions, he introduces me and recites a prayer of blessing and gratitude. Paul speaks to each person with kindness but is also firm with a no-nonsense demeanor - they listen intently with a huge dose of respect and love for this man. Everyone gets busy immediately with their respective tasks and I’m assigned to unwrap dozens of hamburger packages and place in a large plastic tub. Someone else will do the mixing. This will later become meatloaf and chili. Next, I have to chop dozens of bags of carrots as my rubber gloves turn orange and open dozens of spaghetti sauce jars. Paul has to leave to conduct in-take interviews with men who want to enter the program. He chooses carefully and eliminates any high risk men that may jeopardize people already in the program. Even though background checks are done, Pauls concern is to protect and keep his men out of harms way. He has the final say as to who comes into or leaves he program. I later learn that the person he is interviewing is not stable and therefore denied acceptance into the program. After he leaves I sit down with Paul at one of the booths in the dining room and he tells me a story as he sips his coke. The person he just interview resonated deep within Paul because I believe it reminded him of a man that left the program, and subsequently reached out to Paul before attempting suicide. He called Paul to come to his hotel room, as he was holding a gun to his head. Paul was able to talk him down, but meanwhile called authorities to go immediately to the hotel room. After that, he broke down and realized that he was too emotionally invested and had to learn to have balance in his work life, maintaining some distance.

This morning I was working in the kitchen alongside Josh who I’ve chatted with before, but today we had a different kind of chat. He’s very young with shiny bright brown eyes whose ear lobes were stretched and now have gaping holes where they were once adorned with earrings. He always appears cheerful and happy with tireless energy whenever I see him. I asked him what brought him to the program. He smiles and reveals one lost tooth on the side of his face and begins to tell me his story in the most polite and respectful way. When he was 18 or 19 he moved out from his mom who drank a lot, and into an apartment with some friends. He never knew his dad, only a stepdad who was not very kind to him. One late night, he was home alone - everyone was gone to a party he decided not to attend. As he was sleeping, some thugs broke into the house and robbed it. While doing that, they beat Josh within an inch of his life. They broke many of his bones, knocked out a few teeth. He almost died. He ended up in the hospital with a very long recovery ahead of him. After that terrible night, something changed in him and he turned to drugs and armed robbery. He was in and out of jail many times. When authorities were going to lock him up for good, his court date and sentence of 5 years with probation got him to the mission and into the program. He says the program saved his life and how he owes it all to God and the people he met there. Josh will graduate in September and I’ll be attending and cheering him on. Josh is now working in the Mission retail store and he couldn’t be happier. He is able to interact with people and it’s a prestigious position within the program. Grinning from ear to ear he tells me he went on a date with a girl that is working her program and recovering as well. Life is good for Josh and he constantly reminds himself how grateful he is to God and the people he has met in the program. He shares this with eyes glistening and tearing up with joy.

I’ve learned so much from shadowing Paul for only a day and for having the privilege to meet Josh and so many like him. I am honored to serve alongside these young men who work so hard each and every day at their journey to wellness and promising futures.

A Slice Of Cake
Living On The Streets

Their names are called from a list the homeless men have signed before lining along the brick wall outside the dining room. I wonder about the men whom aren’t aware of this list and those whose names are never called. It’s a particularly cold night in January and the 75+- men shuffle in and sit down quietly at the long laminate tables. They are asked to remove their hats and bow their heads in prayer. On most nights we are able to serve second plates of food, so when a very young strapping man asks me if he can have a second plate - I find out that we don’t have enough food to serve seconds tonight. I hesitate, but finally tell him no and how sorry I am to have to tell him this. Later, the same young man asks me if there is any more dessert cake left. I check, only to return with another no, I’m sorry. He nods and I tell him I wished I had a whole cake, because if I did, I’d give him the entire cake - just for him. He said he believed that I would and he looked deep into my eyes and thanked me over and over again. He knew that I knew he was hungry and my heart ached for him.

On my way home that night, I turn off the radio and just listen to the silence that engulfs me. I wanted to breaks the rules and give him everything he asked for. The homeless are only allowed one dessert with the first plate. If there are seconds available, they do no not get a second piece of cake, otherwise, I’m told there won’t be enough and everyone will want one. So, instead I send a silent blessing to this young man because that’s all I can do and think...there but for the grace of God go I. I am thankful that God allowed me to meet this man and give him a piece of my heart instead of cake.

The following night while serving the women, I see one of my favorite friends, Margaret, in the dining room. She is large in stature, tall and big boned, with short thick blonde hair cut into a bob. We are happy to see each other and she always engulfs me with a huge bear hug. We spend time talking about her day and she shares that she doesn’t stay at the women’s shelter on site because it’s too crowded and has one large open room and she likes her privacy. Instead, Margaret stays at another place down the street that is smaller and she is able to go off by herself in the back corner and have some privacy. Her face saddens as she explains that most of the women are mean to her and call her hurtful names. It amazes me because she looks so tuff, stern and strong on the outside and certainly not someone you would want to antagonize. Beneath that seemingly tuff outer shell, is a sensitive and soft women that wants to be loved and cared for. This is one example of the many contrasts I experience in the homeless dining room which I encounter every time I serve here.

Margaret is a baseball fan and she loves the Angels. She is from Southern California and I tell her she looks like a California girl. She grins a toothless smile. I ask if she has any family here and her gaze softens as she talk about her only child, a daughter who lives in Colorado and is a successful sou-chef there. Margaret is planning a trip to see her and they are very close, but remains hopeful that her daughter will transfer to Reno to be near her. She confides in me that long ago on Christmas Day her husband was killed in a car crash and on that very day her daughter was born. I asked her if she was in the car and she said yes. I can only imagine the pain and suffering Margaret experienced on that tragic day and I mourn for her. I’m reminded of a few poems that I want to share with the reader. The beauty of poetry is that is explains in such a special creative way what the heart feels an what it yearns for. I continue to learn so much from the wonderful people I meet here at the Mission.

Quote from Henry David Thoreau…Why I Went to the Woods
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what is has to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…”. “Our vision does not penetrate the surface of things,”

Quote from John Donne…No Man Is an Island
“Perchance he for whom this bells tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may the myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.” …”no man is an island, entire of itself; everyman is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…”because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Living On The Streets

After serving dinner to the homeless women at the Mission, a young girl wrapped in a thin gray blanket was shuffling slowly out of the dining room and walking directly toward me. What struck me was her inflamed red face which looked parched and scorched from the cold winter wind and sun. I asked her if she was alright and her timid response was that she was hungry and desperate for shelter. With my heart breaking wide open I put my arm around her and told her we would fix that. I asked if she had already eaten tonight and she replied yes, but was still very very hungry and cold. I grabbed a paper plate loaded with a hot dog, beans and coleslaw donated by the local church and instructed her to follow me. As we walked together arm in arm, I could feel here shivering beneath the thin gray blanket as we approached the front lobby. She kept looking at me with intensity for long periods of time and gazed deep into my eyes as she continued eating from the white plastic plate. As I looked back at her, it was difficult to discern what she was feeling through those expressionless somewhat haunting brown eyes. She doesn’t speak.

I knew we had to leave the lobby quickly, because we were breaking the rules! No one is allowed to leave the dining room with food. So I told her to hurry up and finish eating as we were being reminded of these rules. Meanwhile, I asked Kip working the front desk where she could stay tonight because it was forecasted to be only 10 degrees! He gave instructions to go to the end of the block where the women’s shelter was and inquire if they had any room left at this hour or perhaps at the overflow. I wasn’t quite sure yet what “overflow” meant. So we stepped out into the icy cold as the day was turning to dusk with her white plastic plate in hand, which by now had a few beans and a little piece of hot dog left on it. She was trembling so I zipped up her tattered sweatshirt and placed the hood over her head and tucked in her brown knotted hair around her face, then tighten the string. Next, I re-wrapped the gray blanket snuggly around her in an attempt to keep her warm. We walked slowing down the sidewalk and entered the last building which displayed the sign, Women’s Shelter on it.

A women approached us behind the glass and announced she was the manager and promptly said they did not have any room here. We asked about the overflow and she gave us instructions to go back outside next door to the mens shelter, go upstairs to add her name to the list for the “overflow” group. As we walked the young oppressed women kept gazing at me like she did earlier and I just kept my arms around her as we walked hoping to give her some comfort. She never spoke and I wondered what she was thinking. When we arrived at the desk a large black women asked her name and wrote Kathy on the clipboard. She then asked Kathy if she was on any medications to which Kathy said no, and she angrily reported that she was in the hospital but they did nothing for her. This was the most I heard Kathy speak, since we initially met back at the Mission. We were abruptly told that they would call Kathy’s name at about 10 pm. I asked who were “they” and where does this take place. The black women told us we had to go back to the women’s shelter where we just were and wait in a large room with tables and “they” would call her name there. I was incensed that the manger from the other building didn’t have the ridiculous clip-board to begin with! I asked for a heavier blanket, but to no avail. Guess what? We had to go back to the Mission to get that. So we tread back out into the cold and arrive back at the manager we just saw 10 minutes earlier. She tells us there is no room for Kathy to sit at one of the tables. They were at full capacity and authorities would shut them down and someone would have to leave before Kathy could enter. I was outraged! As I glared into the manager’s vacant and deadpan face I wondered how she slept at night and why she still had this job. As I bit my tongue, I told her that the black woman upstairs just told us something completely different. I was unprepared for what came next. She told me the women in the adjacent building was new and misinformed and besides, Kathy knows the rules. Rules? This is nothing but utter chaos and completely disorganized in my opinion. This is confusing to me, never mind someone who is malnourished and homeless. As I shook my head at this nonsense and web spun of confusion that is palpable, I told Kathy to stay here and I’d be back with the blanket from the Mission.

As I returned with the blanket, I saw Kathy wandering down the sidewalk towards me. I wrapped the heavy blanket around her and asked her where she is going. She told me she has to say goodbye to a friend. I reminded her how important it was for her to go back and listen for her name to be called. I knew she was destitute and I didn’t want to forsake her and leave her alone and feeling abandoned. I felt helpless in this situation and wanted to scream out for someone to listen. The desolate were all around me on the sidewalk and I felt paralyzed at that moment. It was becoming more frigid as the night settles in. Powerless over the situation, I persist which is all I know how to do in situations likes these. I told Kathy that as I understood it, they were going to transport her and other men and women to a warehouse they call the overflow. To avoid going through this again, she had to sign up early in the day at the Mission to get a place at the shelter. Once again I saw her look deep into my eyes with the same stare and I said goodnight.

Living On The Streets

He was in anguish, tears cascading down is face. His words were barley audible as he spoke. The dinner plate in front of him which still had some food upon it did not interest him. I knew right then he was in deep despair and pain. Not physical pain, but the crushing paralyzing sort of pain the soul endures when hopelessness prevails. He told me he was desperate to stop drinking and it had been a year since he left the program at The Mission. Someone nearby told him he had to want his recovery more than anything else. He nodded and looked up at me from his plate with swollen eyes. Forty-five minutes had passed which to me felt like an eternity flooded with emotion so great that time seemed to stand still. It was time for the homeless men to leave the dining room. This desperate man had to walk back out into the cold night air alone and abandoned without any shelter. Shelter for his body and shelter for his soul. Inside, I cried for him.

Another week had passed and I saw this same man at dinner once more. I sat down across from him so that I could see his face but today he looked very different. The anguish had disappeared from his face and his demeanor was calm and in control. I asked him if he was going to come back to the program but he was noncommittal and distracted. I kept encouraging him to come back and asked if he had the contact numbers for the intake person. I secretly wondered if the alcohol had once again numbed his pain, so I gazed deep into his eyes with an arresting and penetrating stare hoping to reach his soul with kindness and to somehow convey to him that I cared what happened to him. I wished I could instill in him the words of Rumi:

“You were born with potential.
You were born with goodness and trust.
You were born with ideals and dreams.
You were born with greatness.
You were born with wings.
You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.
You have wings.
Learn to use them and fly.”

The End Of A Season
Living On The Streets

“To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason.
To bow and accept the end
Of a love or of a season.” - Robert Frost

The Fall and Winter Seasons of this year were wrought with confusion, surrender, honesty and love for my fellow man. Personal stories of every kind which led me to where I am on this journey of peace, harmony, laughter and love. This particular season of my life has been introspective, with an echoing mantra in my mind of - how may I serve? To this end I stumbled upon the Gospel Mission where a myriad of personal stories unfolded. Out of this, my story, too, unfolds.

I donated tangible material things such as blankets, clothes, food, flowers, washer/dryer, but the most wonderful aspects were donating intangibles like my time and myself to this mission. Being present and in the moment with the homeless and the downtrodden without judgement was not as difficult as one might think. At least not for me. Being a volunteer had its challenges and for me the hardest challenge was to detach. It was a fine line and one which I was incapable of crossing. I seemed to break the rules more often than not. I regularly heard, “oh you can’t do that, if we do it for one, we have to do it for all,” were some of the rehearsed answers I would hear. I just wanted to give them that extra piece of cake or that one more piece of bread. After all, this may be all they eat until tomorrow night when they would return to the mission. However, if I did this, there may not be enough for later. It did not resonate as truth for me because I felt that later would take care of itself in this divine universe of unlimited abundance. Another rule was that the homeless may not leave the premises with food or we could be shut down. I just wanted to give without rules and restrictions, which proved to be my demise.

One of my goals was to delve into the personalities of the men in the recovery program offered at the shelter. Their personal stories were intriguing - how and why they got to where they were at this juncture in their lives. What went wrong, and how do we fix it. Their stories bubble over with bad decisions and addictions of every kind. To demonstrate genuine interest in another human being regardless of their circumstances is something I felt called to do. To offer them hope and some measure of joy in the midst of their suffering was compelling to me. I was blessed to have that in my heart to be able to give it away and that is just what I did.

Early November in Northern Nevada was unusually cold but the sun was shining and the warm coffee we were sipping took the chill off. As we walked along the river cupping our coffee to warm our hands, we engaged in a steady stream of conversation about his life on the street and his terrible addiction to meth. We only had an hour and he was due back to work at the mission. Within that hour, I learned so much about another human beings suffering and his journey back to peace and freedom. His victories were astonishing given his past circumstances and I was very grateful that this person felt comfortable enough to share his story with me.

The months flew by as I continued to volunteer, and with each passing week I grew emotionally closer to the homeless and the men in the program as well as the other volunteers. We shared a special bond as we served and prepped the food together and chatted about the days events. I would bring newspapers and magazines to share others, along with cigarettes and candy. Many of the guys were getting their GED diplomas at night while working during the day, so conversations would often revolve around that and their upcoming graduations. I am learning that when we gently draw out others by really hearing their stories, we are showing love and respect by exploring another person’s feelings. It is through listening that we gain an awareness to forget about ourselves and become connected to each person rather than a feeling of separateness and judging them as different from us. This is what I am trying to do here at the Mission. It’s that part of us that recognizes the humanity in each of us.

I made a mistake the day I met Scott for coffee off- site in a public place. This innocent act cost me my volunteer position at the Mission. While I believe this decision was a bit harsh by the Mission and everyone deserves a second chance, I know I made a difference there and touched a few lives and for me that made all the difference I am saddened that I will be unable to attend the graduations, care for some of my homeless friends, and find the strength to accept the end of this season. Acceptance for what is rather than as I wish it were is a sign of growth. If one person reads these essays and it changes the way they treat and think about the homeless it will have all been worthwhile. Exposure to the day to day lives of the homeless and addicted persons has enriched me in ways I’m still discovering.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
-T.S. Elliott

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
-Henry David Thoreau

Outside The Bus Window
Living On The Streets

When I was about 10 years old and riding the bus through downtown Chicago, I saw a lot of strange and interesting people, some very well dressed in suits with matching hats and others that were very poor in tattered clothing. The contrast was striking to me and I could not make sense of any of it, or where I might fit in. As the kaleidoscope of images whirled by outside the bus window, I would see old worn red brick buildings some decaying, some covered in black soot, and others pumping out plumbs of gray smoke. The scenery kept changing - it was like watching a movie. Next, we would pass elaborate and richly appointed department store window decorations, most commanding an entire corner of the building. They were huge - especially to a 10 year old. At Christmas time, these famous department stores windows had entire cities crafted with moving parts that told a story which sparkled and delighted the on-looker with awe. Crowds would gather on the street peering inside the window to catch a glimpse of these marvels that seemed to demand attention. Sometimes, I would press my face against the glass window on the bus and look up. There, I would discover a network of wires and cables criss-crossing into a web of intricate mesh. These were the tracks for the buses - I was fascinated! They had trolley polls mounted on top so they could run in certain areas. They would sputter and crackle, and, sometimes if you looked closely you would even see a spark or two.

I was alone, which was my preferred way of travel and had my transfer tickets at the ready in my hand. In 1962 you paid the bus driver with coins that dropped into a the box which would chime and make all kinds of noises with its moving parts. They were called the Johnson Farebox. The bus driver would either punch your ticket or give you a transfer. In those day the CTA public buses were vintage green and white public buses. The base fare was .25 and transfers were 05. I experienced a sense of freedom as I contemplated how one would be able to travel all over the Chicagoland and never see the same thing twice. What was most vivid to me were the seemingly homeless people that appeared to be so pervasive in downtown Chicago. Not only outside the bus window, but sitting right next to me on the seat we sometimes shared. This is where my quest began. I saw faces filled with agony, fear and desperation. I wanted to make it better in some way, but had no idea how. I knew I would go back to the safety of the suburbs and be with my mom and all would be well - but the experience never left me. I was in a state of complete shock at the horrors of the human condition. I never saw these things in the suburbs. Instead, it was a different kind of desperation here in the burbs. Not the in -your- face kind like I saw during my many rides on the city bus.

These thoughts flooded my head as I rode the bus on my way to figure skating lessons at Michale Kirby Ice Skating Rink. I was so proud of my custom figure skates which were made just for me - size 8. I carefully oiled and polished these boots after each lesson, knowing they were magical and I would be a star figure skater one day. My teacher was always dressed perfectly in the most amazing outfits. I especially loved her soft pink parka contrasting with her brown hair as she whirled around the ice effortlessly showing us the next move we had to learn. Everything seemed easy for her and I was in awe. She was a goddess and I was sure she was filthy rich. I wanted to be like her.

On my way home hopping on the city bus, more characters emerged and I watched as they boarded and paid their fare. Some, reached painstakingly deep down in their pockets to find the right coins taking too much time and frustrating the driver, some had only pennies or nickels they were counting out one by one as if it was gold. Worse, some were not even allowed to board. They either had the wrong transfer ticket or not the right amount of money. The driver was feverishly punching holes in the paper tickets as I sat on the hard seat tying so hard to be patient and waiting. Finally we began to move, only to stop again a few blocks away and the same monotony would ensue. On occasion the driver would crank the sign from her seat which would change the street name on the front of the bus. It was hot and stuffy inside and usually very crowded - the array of smells mixing with the exhaust fumes were not pleasant. No seat belts in those days and if you wanted the bus to stop you had to pull the string which ran along the edge of the ceiling. The folding doors on the side of the bus would open and you had only moments to exit or the doors would collapse on you. It happened to me once and I was mortified. It seemed the people who rode the city buses were the working class and the poor. I never remember seeing a nicely dressed lady or gent on any of the seats around me. This kind of travel was not for the well - healed. Instead, I observed tired, old looking faces, with drab tired looking clothing to match. The view out of the window was not much better. The sidewalks were buckled and broken from the harsh winters and in need of repair. The brick building facades and sides were covered with graffiti and worn out signs. The pervasive red brick faded into an array of colors outside my window- which I suspected was caused by many repairs that didn’t match the original brick. Soon, I would be back in the burbs with my creature comforts, nicely paved streets and clean buildings.

What was different about my home in the suburbs compared to my friends? I was from a divorced home. This was not the norm in 1962 and not one of my friends had a single working mom at hone with no dad. They lived in houses and I lived in an apartment building on the second floor. I desperately wanted to be like my friends. I just wanted to fit in and not be different. Maybe this is how the homeless felt and some of the people I saw while riding the city bus. Maybe this is where my connection to those less fortunate began.

Author's Bio: 

I am a 66 year old retired interior designer who is a creative that has a passion for the homeless plight America faces. I have personally met with the people described in this article through volunteering and deep compassion for them. I feel a strong connection, which I hope this articles conveys to the reader. My goal is to encourage people to see the homeless in a different light and to dispel all judgement. Rather to get a glimpse into their hearts and the challenges they face. To send them love and blessings and realize we are all connected to our creator.