For two years, deserted buildings and covered stoops had been my home. Except for a few brief interludes, I was a Burnside Street regular. I had seen more despair in those two years than I had in my entire life, and my relationship with my Lord had grown vastly as a result. I began, however, to feel a tug at my heart that seemed to say I would soon be moving on.
One evening, the frigid night air became more than my light jacket could handle, so I hurried to the nearest halfway house. My heart sank when I saw the locked doors before me and realized I’d arrived too late. Leaning against an adjacent building, shifting the weight on my cold feet from one to the other, I watched as more men arrived, only to find the shelter full. Within thirty minutes, more than a dozen of us had gathered.
One by one we sat down against the building, creating some warmth by sitting close to each other. On a cold night, body heat was a wonderful thing; it was common to see several men packed tightly together to protect themselves from the cold.
Some of the men had bottles of cheap wine or whiskey. They’d drink all they wanted and then pass the bottle to the next guy. It was drinking that helped most of them survive the cold nights. The alcohol didn’t make them any warmer, of course; it just killed their sensitivity to the cold. This is why homeless people often freeze to death. They’re so drunk or high they don’t realize how cold it really is. That night most of the faces were familiar to me, though I didn’t know all of their names. The bottles passed back and forth among the men as they discussed a fight that had taken place earlier in a nearby bar. I sat quietly, concentrating mostly on keeping warm and surviving the cold night.
Suddenly, I heard a voice directed at me. The other men perked up as if the voice of God Himself had spoken, and I was intimidated by the sudden attention. Apparently the man speaking to me had quite a reputation on the streets as a cruel tyrant. I’m not sure if the reputation was born out of fear, respect, or both.
The man beside me hit my shoulder. “Hey, Duke is talking to you!”
Seeing by my expression that I had not heard him, Duke repeated, “Around the corner, under the metal pipe sticking out of the building is a sleeping bag. Go get it!”
Running his “errand” would mean losing my place in the huddle, and that irritated me. I shot an angry look at the guy and wanted to tell him to go get it himself. I was as cold as he was. Instead I sighed, responded with a simple “okay,” and left my coveted spot in the huddle.
Following Duke’s directions, I found a clean, nicely folded sleeping bag under some plastic. My first desire was to find a secluded spot and wrap myself in the warmth of it, but instead I returned to the group of men. Naturally, someone had taken my spot in the huddle. Handing the bag to Duke, I anxiously looked for a place to sit. All eyes were on Duke, wondering, I suppose, if the sleeping bag was going to be shared.
Duke took the bag and told the person next to him, “Move over and make room for the boy.” The authority Duke possessed became obvious as the guy did exactly what he was told with no argument. I now had a spot, and it was next to the man with the sleeping bag!
At times the street people display a genuine compassion for each other, as though they’re all part of one big family. This was one of those moments. Duke opened up the sleeping bag and stretched it as wide as it would go, making sure everyone’s feet were covered. Shuffling closer until everyone was satisfied, we were all settled under “our” sleeping bag.
When I awoke the next morning, my nose felt itchy and numb. I tried to rub it, but my hands were too cold to cooperate. I began to wonder what bar was open this early to serve some hot, freshly brewed coffee.
I rubbed my hands together for warmth, then reached into my pocket to count my change, trying to figure out how many cups of coffee it would buy. By this time, Duke began to stir, and he asked what I was doing.
“I want to buy my friends a cup of coffee,” I replied.
We began to talk, and I told Duke what a great thing he’d done the night before. “We were like a big family, all caring and sharing the benefit of your sleeping bag. Thank you,” I said—and I meant it! As we continued to talk, Duke opened up to me about his family. He told me how he had been a family man who began to drink too much. Before long, he was consistently too drunk to work. Eventually his wife kicked him out of the house.
A man next to us was stirred by our conversation, and he began having thoughts of home. He pulled out some old, ragged pictures of his family. His story was quite similar to Duke’s. Alcohol had robbed him of his personal and professional life, so he left for the refuge of Skid Row, where being drunk would be acceptable.
Soon everyone had something to add to the stories of home. Tears started flowing, and arms hugged and consoled. Observing the mood of the group, Duke said, “Guys, Kurt is going to buy us all coffee at the bar. Let’s go where it’s warm and talk some more.” Not wanting to let go of such warm, sentimental feelings, we passed around the pictures as we walked; our conversation didn’t miss a beat.
Pulling out my change as we approached the bar, I realized we were going to be one coffee short. I had enough money for everyone but myself. No one else had money to contribute since they’d spent it on cheap booze the night before.
The bartender passed out the coffee, and I listened as each man relayed how he ended up on Skid Row. It amazed me how many different things had happened in their lives. But there was one factor common to all of the men, and that was the power that alcohol and drugs had over their lives. I pondered this as someone asked, “Kurt, what about your family?”
I had been so involved in what everyone was saying that the question caught me off guard. Duke added, “Why are you here?” He handed me a cup that had been passed around, each man adding some coffee from his own cup until mine was full.
As I sipped the coffee, I reached into my pocket as if to bring out my family pictures. I had none, but I had my New Testament. I began to tell the men stories of Jesus. I told them about the family of God and how they could become a part of that family by accepting Christ as their personal Savior.
A couple of the men walked away, but most of them listened with great interest to my every word. Several men asked questions, genuinely eager to know more. As I attempted to answer their questions, my eyes were drawn to Duke, who had been quiet the entire time. I asked him if he was all right, and he responded by bursting into tears. He told us how much he missed his family and how he yearned to go back.
The bartender was behind the bar, listening to our entire conversation. But as Duke spoke, the bartender came out and quietly placed a hand on Duke’s shoulder.
One of the men piped up. “Duke, why don’t you just call your family and tell them you’re sorry and that you want to come home?” The men all nodded their heads, encouraging Duke to make the call. The compassionate bartender offered the use of his office phone. Sadly, Duke explained that several years had gone by and that the number he had was probably not current. We wouldn’t let him make excuses though, and encouraged him to call the number. Duke finally gave a submissive shrug; he headed to the back room to give it a try. Duke returned after about twenty minutes. I’ll always remember his smile, so full of indescribable happiness. In a voice choked with emotion, he said that his wife told him she had prayed for this day— the day when he would call her asking to come home. This was an answer to her prayers!
The bartender offered to drive Duke home just as soon as we all cleared out of his bar. Duke’s street family began to leave, wishing him well; all gave a little advice with a pat on the back. I was no exception. I gave Duke a hug and said my goodbyes.
I also gave him my Bible before parting ways.
Eventually, God did move me on from Burnside Street, and I never saw Duke again. Many times I’ve wished that I had gotten his address. But I also pray that someday I’ll see Duke and the rest of those men as part of a bigger family—the family of God.