Street people are a paradox. At times they’re loners, struggling to protect themselves and to simply survive. Other times they show great concern and care for one another. I had the opportunity to experience their benevolence firsthand on several occasions.
One wintry night, I began shivering uncontrollably, and no matter what I did, I could not get warm. The cold air had reached its icy fingers inside my inadequate jacket and chilled me to the bone. Sitting among us was an old man I’d seen around a few times and had heard referred to as “Grandpa.” He noticed how badly I was shivering and invited me to take a walk with him to get warm.
As the old man led me down the streets, I began to imagine where we might end up. It could be just about anywhere. Finally, we walked behind a factory and came upon a garbage dumpster, apparently our predetermined destination. The old man quickly went about his work of making me warm for the night. I watched as he retrieved newspaper from the dumpster and expertly rolled each piece. Like a man on a mission, he ordered me to unbutton my jacket. Noting the puzzled look on my face, he added, “Its okay. Trust me.”
Grandpa stuffed my jacket full of the rolled newspaper until I looked like a human scarecrow. The sleeves of my jacket were so stiff with the paper that spilled out over my hands, I could barely bend my arms. But I was warm that night for the first time.
Next, the old man invited me to share his dumpster for the night. What an honor! Now, you might scratch your head and wonder why in the world I’d consider being invited into a dumpster full of rotting garbage so special. But on the streets, this gesture is the equivalent of being invited into someone’s home. I felt honored and accepted.
We climbed into the dumpster, pushing and maneuvering the garbage until we had snuggled in comfortably. Then we piled the garbage around us for added insulation from the cold. Just as we settled in for the night, the debris at the other end of the dumpster began to move. Before I had a chance to discover what caused the movement, up popped a man’s head!
“That’s Charlie,” the old man said. “He’s a good guy. He’s family.” Nodding in my direction, he told Charlie, “This here’s ‘The Kid.’ He’s a good boy.” This simple expression of acceptance warmed my heart as the garbage warmed my body. The old man had welcomed me into his world.
The following morning became a training session in street survival. The old man decided to teach me the ropes. That day I learned where to hide if the police were in pursuit, what alleys blocked the cold wind, and where the closest Salvation Army mission was located. He showed me what garbage cans provided the best breakfast, lunch, and supper to be had on the streets. Grandpa had a plan of survival for every conceivable situation!
I didn’t see much of the old man again until several nights later, when the unusually quiet night was shattered by the sound of screeching tires and a blaring car horn. I turned just in time to see the car barely miss the body of a man lying in the middle of the street. It was Grandpa. The car swerved and stopped. Once the driver realized the body was that of a street bum, he drove on, his irritation obvious.
I rushed to the old man and noticed the shattered bottle next to his hand. It had apparently broken when he fell. I quickly scooped him up into my arms and returned to the sidewalk. His clothes were soaking wet, and his body felt like ice. I knew if I didn’t get him into dry clothes and a shelter, he would die.
I remembered a place that Grandpa and I had passed once and that he’d referred to it as home. So I quickly headed that direction, having no idea who would answer when I pounded on the heavy wooden door so late at night. Minutes later, the door cracked open enough to reveal a suspicious eye. A voice shouted, “Go away!” The door slammed in my face. I knocked again. This time an angry man opened the door wide and explained to me, using some creative language, that I was not welcome there. But he suddenly fell silent when he recognized the lifeless form in my arms.
“Where did you find Grandpa?” he asked as he beckoned me in.
“We’ve been worried about him.”
As he ushered me inside, I saw that “home” to Grandpa was a vast, warehouse-like room with men lying on the floor; some in sleeping bags, others wrapped in blankets. The floor was filled to capacity on this blustery night.
“We usually don’t let anyone in this late,” my host told me as we began to peel off Grandpa’s wet clothing. “When the floor fills up, I lock the door.”
Pointing in the direction of the wall, he told me, “Get the sleeping bag out of the cubbyhole marked ‘Grandpa.’” The wall was covered from top to bottom with one-foot square cubicles, each identified by someone’s name. Sure enough, there was Grandpa’s cubby. I unfolded the old man’s sleeping bag and smiled to myself at its childish design of pink happy faces.
We tucked the old man in, and I felt relieved to know he had this place to come to. It was “home” to him—a place where someone obviously cared about him. I wondered who provided this simple, necessary place of security and warmth for the hundred or so men huddled on the floor. It could have been a businessman, the government, or a church.
To whoever it was, I felt grateful for the shelter and safety they’d provided to the “insignificant ones” living in the streets. This time it was neither garbage nor newspaper that warmed me. The warmth I felt came straight from my heart.
From that moment on I knew I wanted to build housing for the homeless. I wanted to help create a safe place people could heal and grow. It started a drive in me that lives from this day on.