Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Bless the Invisible Children

Last night - 3:00 a.m.

As I write this I’m surrounded by 24 homeless men and women who are sound asleep on the gymnasium floor of our church.

10:00 p.m. - bedding down for the night

In a sense I’m feeling lucky, because tonight there are only adults here but I’m told that earlier this week there were two sets of families with kids. One of them had a baby and a toddler. It’s always harder when there are kids. The guilt that is.

My wife and I have been helping with the Church of the Week program for years. Every October – May, the 30+ churches
that participate from our area take turns feeding and housing the homeless for a week. During this time, the church and its volunteers are responsible for providing the evening meal and the space for anyone who needs a place to sleep.

Last night we fed around 90 people down at the Place of Hope drop-in center. Fortunately, 66 of them managed to find a bed at one of the 3 shelters in our city, but the other 24 people ended up here for the night. People like Clarissa*, who I’ve seen here the last 4 years as well. Or Corey, a 19 year old “man” who found himself homeless for the first time last year on Christmas Eve, and broke down in tears as he asked if he would be allowed to attend the evening Christmas vigil. But at least this year I don’t have to see the children.

I debated whether or not I should even write this, because I didn’t want to sensationalize this issue and I especially didn’t want it to seem like I was looking for a pat on the back for doing this. This has nothing to do with me. Staying up for one night a year so 2 dozen extremely less fortunate people don’t have to sleep under a bridge in 19 degree weather is a no-brainer. I don’t even hesitate to sign up.

The reason I wanted to write this tonight is because having an extra 200 people read this might, in one tiny way, help illuminate the fact that homelessness is real and needs to be addressed. I mean if St. Cloud, MN has 90 people who don’t have a warm place to sleep at night (and those are just the ones who can be counted by showing up for dinner), I can't even imagine how many the larger cities like Minneapolis, Chicago or New York are struggling with. The numbers must be staggering.

The truth is, it’s easy to not notice the homeless. The ones who are lucky enough to find work during the day are usually at the temporary agency at 5:00 a.m. - hours before any of us are on the street. But the rest? Well, they just kind of blend in and in most cases their homelessness is essentially invisible. In fact, you most likely encounter several homeless people a day and have no idea. Not every homeless person walks down the sidewalk pushing a grocery cart full of stuff, most of them look just like ordinary people.

But now after getting to know them through this program, I see them all the time. I see them walking on the street. I see them at the library. I see them in McDonalds nursing a cup of coffee until it’s time to find another place where they can hang out and stay warm. I see their children at school with our children.

Ah yes, the children. So what is it about the children that makes me feel guilty?
Is it their innocence? They didn’t do anything to deserve this.
Is it their helplessness? They have no control over these circumstances.
Is it their ignorant hope? Even though these kids are sleeping in a church gymnasium, they STILL manage to smile and thank me for helping.

Yes, yes, and yes. Every year that I see the children it breaks my heart. And in the morning when I send them out the door I feel guilty.

Good Lord, it’s several degrees below freezing out there. Where are they going to go?

And then I pack up my sleeping bag and head on home to my large heated house where my kids are waking up, and deciding what they’ll have for breakfast.

*names have been changed for privacy


Dan said...

I know that guilt and that heartbreak well Jeff. It's an unpleasant world out there which many people are often shielded from.

Good for you for trying to make a difference. And good for your organisatio for not just making it a christmas thing. People are homeless all through the year, not just at christmas.

Heather said...

That is a great thing that the churches are doing. I'm not aware of anything like that here. I see men standing on street corners with signs asking for food. I'm sad for them, but I can't stop and help when my kids are in the car. Having lived in New York, I'm on the skeptical side and worry that they could grab my wallet or something in front of the kids. Not a chance I'm willing to take even to ease my guilty conscience about driving by these men.

I help by donating to the food shelf, etc. I guess that's all I can do for now. Or that's what I tell myself anyway.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how other nations are solving homeless needs. For example Norway does provide housing, medicine etc. but everyone must work or go to jail, where they are required to work. Also no baby leaves the hospital without signed support, or the baby is put up for adoption. Are those laws too tough? Thankfully you and Saint Cloud residents are temporarily taking care of a few needs, but research and ideas are needed immediately.- Bill [GOOD WORK JEFF}

Anonymous said...

Mom said--
Why am I sitting here with tears in my eyes, after reading your blog?!!!

Anonymous said...

If I had money I would save these people....this makes me bawl and that is hard. I want to help people sooooo bad

Elizabeth said...

We have a place like that here in Juneau, our church often asks for volunteers when it's our turn to cook and serve. I've noticed the same people always volunteer. Next time they ask I will make sure I volunteer too. Thanks for the inspiration and Happy New Year!
:o) Elizabeth

Gary said...

I have nothing constructive or sensible to add because like most people I just walk on by - but thank you for making me stop and think for a short while, maybe it will make a difference next time.

Miss Laurence said...

Bonne année !

Happy New Year Jeff ! :)

Gale said...

The homeless blend in very well at college. I would find a spot every day upstairs in the studen union building or the library to study. I would notice the same grimy faces asleep in a comfy chair. It is nice that they did not get bothered by anyone. I don't know where they ate as it was very expensive to eat on campus. I don't give to the signholders on the street. It is like an industry here.

Anonymous said...

rick said,
I think it's great you have such a big heart. Mine must be part grinch because when some alcoholic/meth addict comes up and asks me if I have a dollar, I always think of the many thousands of people who have died just for the chance to get into this country, or the people who don't have arms or legs. Then I think of the free education he was given,and all that he has taken for granted. I asked the last guy if, when he was a little kid, and people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, did he say "I want to be a begger." I was at Burger King, and I pointed out the "Help Wanted" sign. He told me they wouldn't pay him enough. Apparently he felt he was too good for the food service industry, a job we both worked in for years to EARN our own way. Call me cynical, but the vast majority of those guys just don't feel like working.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

rick - I know what you're saying about panhandlers, but this is a different situation. These people are people on the fringes with minor mental or physical health issues who have fallen through the cracks and are unable to maintain a job.

In their cases, our social and healthcare systems have simply failed them and they have no other choice but to accept the help of the drop-in centers, shelters and churches that are available. And, they're not even allowed to use these services if they test positive for drugs or alcohol.

The morning we were there, there were 5 men who were up and out the door at 5:00 to go stand in line for temporary work, so some of them are definitely doing their best to try to be self sustained. But when a "low income" house costs more than twice what I paid for my first home, it's no wonder they can't afford to own a house on a Burger King income.

Anonymous said...

rick said,
Sorry I kind of went off on a rant there, no sleep last night. I didn't mean to lump all the innocent people who are suffering through no fault of their own, in with the panhandlers. I was accosted three times, and I seem to be seeing more and more of it in Duluth. They all seem to be young men in their 20's, scaring the crap out of old people, who give them money just so they go away.
As for the homeless families, I don't know if I've ever seen one here. Maybe I just wasn't looking.

yellojkt said...

That is truly good work that group is doing. Children are always the victims of our problems.

Sandy said...

What a sad, yet beautiful, post.

When I lived in Duluth, I remember seeing the same faces at the downtown Holiday Mall bus shelter on my way to and from work. I was so naive; it never occurred to me that these people were homeless.

Here in Rochester, our church participates in the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which provides temporary housing to the homeless. It's a wonderful service, but rarely available as it always seems to have more people waiting for a place to sleep than housing.

Kathy said...

A heart-breaking post, Jeff. I'm sitting her all warm and cozy in my living room, hearing the wind howling outside. I'm just hoping everyone in my town who needs a roof over their heads and a meal in their stomachs has one. You're doing good, hands-on work and thank God for people like you.

Anonymous said...

You are no grinch, grinches don't drive 3&1/2 hours so one brother can celebrate New Years and see another brother's gig and still count on you to get him and his friends home safely. A grinch doesn't spend the day sliding down hills with his nephew and his friends. A grinch doesn't run to help out everyone every time they are remodeling their house. You are skeptical and for good reason. BUT as Jeff tries to point out in this post, most of the homeless are good human beings, plagued by bad luck, mental illness or a downturn in the economy. Depression is one of the biggest causes of homelessness, not manipulators trying to scare old ladies(those individuals are probably not even homeless). One of the young men that stayed with us that night was one of the most polite, young veterans I have ever met. My guess is that he is haunted by his stint in the service and has some untreated mental illness. Most of the younger men get up around 5am to stand in line (in the bitter cold) until 8am when the Temp. Labor agency opens so that they have first dibs on the good jobs. Most of the people we spent the night with have some sort of misfortune happening in their lives and no family to catch them as they fall. I think of all the times Bill and Lois have bailed us out of tough times. There are a couple who seem to be just "using" the system but they are very very few and far between. For one thing, the rules are so strict that you have to be willing to put up with quite a bit and few willingly sleep on a gym floor.

Stepping Over the Junk said...

Wow. I love how you express this. We have alot of homeless families in our city this season due to many fires believe it or not. Apartment building and houses. So many people in our little city are pulling together and helping out in ways I didnt think possible...still more needs to be done but still, it is quite amazing. Happy New Year.

Julie Pippert said...

Jeff, pat on the back wanted or not, it's coming from me because every word you wrote is so true and what you do is so wonderful.

I'm sending this post to Mad and Jen for the Just Posts.

Using My Words

Girlplustwo said...

Jeff, thank you for this post. i've spent the last decade in shelters and programs serving the homeless, i so know what you are saying. and Julie is right, it'll be on our just post list this month.

bon bon said...

requests for donations come at us at a fevered pitch during this hectic time of year, and even when we do support charities with a few dollars here and there, we don't often stop to think about their needs beyond writing out that check.

thanks for the reminder that a friendly smile and open heart can be worth even more to these folks.

happy new year to you and your family, jeff. God bless...

fracas said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment at my blog. Arriving here, I immediately thought about how you should "meet" John, and perhaps some of your readers would also benefit from reading John's blog about homelessness and how he got out. John is an inspiration.


Anonymous said...

The world needs more people like you.

And don't feel guilty - you've done nothing to create the conditions that these people live in and you are doing something to help make their lives more comfortable.


Anonymous said...

I worked at a shelter for abused and homeless women and children up in Fargo. It was the most challenging and rewarding job I've ever had.

Thank you for reminding us how simple it is to take what we have for granted.

Jenny, the Bloggess said...


But it's wonderful that you're bringing it to the forefront.

It's so easy to forget how small our problems are and how much others need our help.

robkroese said...

That's great, Jeff. Our area churches have a similar program, and I've helped out a little with it. I suppose it's a bit more urgent where you live, though. There's no way someone could survive on the street in the midwest.

Happy New Year!

G said...

Ah Jeff, I second Mom (your Mom I suppose) as I am sitting here the same way. The thought of people homeless, no less families is disheartening beyond belief. And how in such a "great nation" as our own, does this still exist? I know within my own family, there are some who struggle as they are unemployed and thus healthcare is beyond their reach. It's a sad commentary except for those citizens such as yourself who care enough to really do something. I am glad that you shared this post and we all need to be reminded that we can all help in some way - however small it is. Thank you for doing that.

I live in NYC where there is no shortage of people in need. Best to you and your family in the new year. Thanks for reminding me of just how good we have it.

Memarie Lane said...

This issue really hits home for me, there but for the grace of God go I. I have been near homeless myself many times, it's always just a breath away.

I've had a lot of good experiences working with homeless people.

The worst thing I ever saw was in St. Pete FL, there is a HUGE homeless problem and instead of addressing the issue proactively the city attempts to drive the people out by attacking shelters and churches that provide services.

Chicky Chicky Baby said...

You're good people. I think this is a great way to give back to the community and you've inspired me to look for a similar program in my area.

MYM said...

Very well said. I used to work at a clinic for the homless and street workers...it's a very complex issue that's not easy to understand until you get involved. Good for you and your community for getting involved.

Mom Thumb said...

So many good comments, I have nothing to add . . . except, bless you.

wayabetty said...

Thanks to people like yourself Jeff for voicing this problem here in America! We can't take care of our own people but yet we're the first one to be at someone else's door (internationally!).

I've started taking Tyler to do volunteer first time 3 wks ago, delivering food from The Food Pantry to the elderlies and let me tell you, I had to control myself from not crying seeing these old folks waiting around for the boxes to be opened so they can do their "shopping". So sad, and I'm glad Tyler is seeing that so he knows how lucky he is for a 7 y/o. So I can imagine how your heart must felt when seeing those homeless children. We do take things for granted don't we, even if it's just a small luxury.