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