A Hard Days’ Night in the Sunshine State

By Keith Wasserman
November 2000

“I’ve got sunshine…on a cloudy day…”

My 8th journey to the world of “streets” began on a Sunday afternoon in November 2000. A few hours after I had finished speaking at Pinewood Presbyterian Church, I was taken to the downtown section of the city of Jacksonville, Florida.

I had come to Florida to transport an automobile from my mom’s house in Ocala back to Athens, Ohio where I live. It had been several years since my last trip to better understand the homeless from a ‘one of them’ perspective. This trip renewed my compassion and refreshed my perspective. And I believe perspective is everything. Everything.

One of my spiritual life goals is to see people as God does every day. I believe seeing is a special grace that God gives those who, according to the writer of Proverbs “cry aloud” for understanding (Proverbs 2:1-3). I also believe that seeing is grace that comes through the door of being a worshipper. When Jesus ‘saw’ the multitudes with compassion, he described them as ‘sheep without a shepherd’. What a fitting description for the homeless. I often find myself praying, “Lord, help me to see people as you see them so that I may learn to love as you love”. Developing a balanced ‘theology’ of love is a very important value in my life. I am also aware that we must have the grace from God to practice and distribute the kind of love people need from us. Some need kindness alone; some need a long suffering love and others need the kind of love that is tough and unwavering in nature. I am aware that many of the lessons that will shape my theology of love will come through the door of affliction. (Psalm 119: 67 & 71). I take journeys like these as continuing education so that I might grow in discerning love and better see my neighbors. As the founder/Director of a ministry to the rural homeless for the past 20 years, I believe I need the be immersed into the world of the homeless from the recipients point of view in order to better understand and see with kingdom eyes the lost sheep whom Jesus called harassed and helpless (Matthew 9: 35-38). For when all of the trips are finished and the books have been read and the story has been told, only one thing matters: Love God and love your neighbor. The two are mystically inter-related. In the end, as a follower of Jesus, I don’t think anything else really matters.

One of the dangers I see in the church today is to ‘buy in’ to a theology, which reverses the great commandment. Some Christians (many with good intentions) have mistakenly slipped into a way of thinking about their neighbors, which makes the needy into an idol. Said another way, these misguided people love their neighbors with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and love God as themselves. When this happens, the theology of who God is becomes subject to the needs of neighbor and we cannot see properly. I go to the streets in the hope that these experiences can renew me both in my own commitment to love God and in the way I understand, perceive and respond to my neighbors in need.

This journey, like all of my previous trips to live with the homeless during the past eleven years was intended to be incarnational; to experience life from their perspective. My efforts were directed towards entering into the world where homeless people really live and feel in order to grasp the thinking and perception. I am especially interested in the culture of the homeless and how homeless people reason from the vantage point of their situation. As in all my previous trips to urban areas, I chose to not reveal to anyone that I was not truly homeless. I did use my own name and address however and at no point did I directly lie to anyone. I am quite aware, however, that when I go to the streets, I am not really homeless. At best, I can only “pretend to be poor” (Proverbs 13:7). In reality, I do have friends and family who know where I am and who stand available to assist me at any time while I am on the streets. I know there are people praying for me during my journey. In reality, one phone call can get me out of my situation and that is the stark and shocking difference I must face every time I leave the people I meet on the streets. While I have experienced real danger and with it fear, uncertainty and vulnerability, I continue to find the protective hand of God upon me. This journey served to confirm God’s faithfulness again.

Another Day in Paradise. NOT.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” What a phrase to describe the most prosperous time in our country’s history and the site of the largest number of homeless people I had ever witnessed in my life. Walking around the city of Jacksonville, I rediscovered the world of contrasts. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. I saw many SUV’s on the road leaving the city’s football game. I saw many “no beds” signs and received many “no beds” messages in more shelters; and saw so many full shelters with homeless people overflowing into the streets. One moment I saw the beautiful afternoon sun shining upon the Jacksonville river with happy people boating and a short time later on a different street I saw aimless people locked out of the already filled shelters wrapped in blankets and hovering under the palm trees.

Whenever I enter a city to spend time with homeless people, I make it my plan to pick a city where I don’t know much about the services and shelters provided to there. I have intentionally stayed away from many cities in Ohio because I am familiar with the shelters, the systems and many of the people who run the programs. I want to learn where the shelters and services are by asking questions and looking homeless. I want to see how I am looked upon and treated and experience how people react to me. My dress code for this trip: I wore a pair of dirty sweat pants, a sweatshirt and a t-shirt and tennis shoes.

After a short time of prayer with my dear friends who had invited me to Jacksonville, I was dropped off downtown and I walked to a small urban park in the center of the city. I approached a young man sitting on a short concrete wall and slowly started a conversation. One thing I’ve learned over the years of being on the streets. One has to use discernment combined with faith to determine when to speak and when to keep silent. I introduced myself and we exchanged names. Randy was my first introduction to poverty in Jacksonville. His hopeless and cynical spirit immediately disturbed me. He was young (between 20 and 30) but indicated he had been on the streets for several years. Randy’s conversation left me with the impression that my efforts to stay in a shelter would be futile and that I would be much better off staying away from those places. I was about to discover the answer to this question for myself.

One of the questions I am asking for understanding in during my little visits has everything to do with how the gospel is being preached to the poor. If the primary purpose of the Messiah’s coming (according to Luke 4:18) is to bring good news to the poor, I am very interested in exactly how this is being done by the missions and ministries in the America’s cities. I am particularly interested to discover how the message of the good news about life with Jesus is being transmitted and translated into the particular needs and situations of those who are suffering in the most difficult form of poverty in this country. I am particularly concerned with the methods and relationships displayed by those ministries or people who outwardly wear the name of Christian.

I decided to walk to the waterfront in the hope that I might find some street people. My intention was to watch, listen and hopefully connect. I want to know where people stayed and how the systems of the city worked. When I arrived at the waterfront, I didn’t see anyone other than tourists and townies. I don’t think street people like to mingle with tourists. There is this feeling of ‘stigma’ and the ‘social looks’ that have messages like “get a job ya bum” on them. I sensed that homeless people prefer to hang with other homeless or previously homeless people or at least to remain with those of the same social class.

For my first hour, I literally wandered around the inner city of Jacksonville stopping occasionally to ask questions regarding where shelters were located. At first I found myself enjoying the casual atmosphere but I soon felt the internal pressure to find a shelter before it got too late. My hosts had given me the impression that the men lined up in the late afternoon and that if I wasn’t in the line, I might find myself without a bed. I was about to learn how right they were.

Even though I was not technically homeless, it was still difficult for me (emotionally) to ask strangers about where I could find a shelter. As an extrovert, I usually don’t find it difficult to talk with strangers but I was having a hard time taking initiative. I was all alone, out of my element in unfamiliar circumstances and I felt vulnerable. I felt timid. I was aware that people could take advantage of me by giving me misleading directions. I was aware that I had to trust people I didn’t know. I was aware that I didn’t have any connections to local people. I didn’t have any identification and I didn’t have any money. This was all part of the journey; all part of entering in to the world of the feelings of a stranger and all part of my ‘continuing education’.

Choosing to be vulnerable is very much a part of what I believe it means to be incarnational. Jesus became vulnerable for us in order that we might be able to have a relationship with God. Indeed, he chose to be vulnerable. I very much want to see my own choice to be vulnerable as both an offering of worship and as an effort to ultimately to help homeless people have a relationship with God.

After walking for some time and asking directions, I finally found the Salvation Army. Their building was a large new facility. Knowing what I do about the Salvation Army, I sensed that this particular mission had a strong financial support base. As I approached the front door I immediately noticed about 20 black men hanging around the steps and the door. Then, I saw two white guys sitting by themselves about fifty feet away leaning up against a fence. I went inside and went up to the glass window and asked if I could have a bed. There were two black men behind the desk. One spoke to me while the other read a magazine and ate his supper. The man told me in a kind and sympathetic voice that he didn’t have any more beds and he directed me to the I.M. Sulzbacher Shelter. I told him I was unfamiliar with Jacksonville so he gave me verbal directions and wrote down the name I.M. Sulzbacher Shelter on a piece of paper for me. It was a good thing too because even with the piece of paper I still had a hard time remembering the name of that shelter. The man pointed to the street and said ‘just keep walking’ until you come to the dead end by County jail. I then asked him about getting something to eat and he told me that there was a mobile bus, which arrived around 6pm and stayed until 8pm and he pointed to the location. I told him thank you and as I walked away he stopped me to clarify with an apologetic tone several times that the bus comes only from 6-7 pm. I could sense that he felt bad about accidentally misleading me. Little careless or accidental comments from the people behind desks can be very misleading and disturbing to vulnerable people. I appreciated the man’s sensitivity to me. This kind of thing increased my trust for him. It is this kind of behavior and attitude that creates and promotes an atmosphere of trust for street people. Creating and promoting trust is an important foundation for truly helping people.

And so… I began to walk. And walk. And walk. The street seemed endless. I found myself doubting whether I heard the directions correctly and if they were given correctly. When you feel vulnerable, it is easier to doubt yourself and in your mind blame others for the confusion. Sometimes, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I decided I would ask directions and at one point I questioned a police officer if he knew about any shelters in the area. With a kind tone, he pointed me in the direction I was walking. I notice many things about myself in these situations. I seem to have a heightened sense of my own weaknesses, especially remembering things. I am also very conscious of my reluctance to trust people; especially strangers. It is at these times that people in uniform (all kinds of uniforms) become a symbol of safety.

As I got closer to the I.M. Sulzbacher shelter, I walked beside an elderly black woman. I asked her for directions and she indicated that she was going there too and that she would direct me. As we walked together I looked at what seemed to me to be some kind of jail on the other side of the street. I asked the woman walking with me two times what that building was. She didn’t respond at either time. I think I was trying to make conversation. Finally, she did reply and said “Do you want to know where the shelter is or not”. ‘Oh…’ I thought to myself ‘now I get the message’. She didn’t want to talk about that place. I apologized for what I now understood was an inappropriate question. She said nothing. She continued to direct me and we approached the front of the shelter together. There were a lot of people outside sitting in the picnic area. I went inside and asked the two women at the front desk about a bed for the night. They directed me to Tony who told me he would know whether he had any open bed for about an hour. I remember him saying, “I don’t think I will have a bed open but you can wait around and see”. Tony encouraged me to try the Salvation Army. I explained I had just come from there. After getting a drink of water, I took the long walk around the fenced area to the picnic shelter where the homeless (mostly men) had gathered around 10-15 picnic tables under some kind of wooden shelter. We seemed to be in a section of town hidden away from tourists and public view. The yard was well kept and there was some kind of construction project going on. There were lots of picnic tables and a long picnic shelter. Some were playing cards, others were eating and some of the folks were just hanging out. I noticed a large section of outdoor lockers covered by a roof where the homeless could keep their personal belongings and access it during the day without having to go into the shelter. I guess it is easier for shelters to provided lockers in a city where the weather is warm most of the time. I waited some time and then approached that entrance to the building. Immediately Tony approached me and told me he now knew he would not have any beds open. He asked me if I knew where the New Life Shelter was and I told him I didn’t know the city at all. He started to give me directions naming streets I had never heard of. He must have sensed my confusion because he stopped in mid-sentenced and simply said “come with me”. Tony then proceeded to take me through a series of locked doors through the shelter to the other side of the building where the door opened to a parking lot. Once we got outside again, he lowered his voice and confided in me something he felt I needed to know about the shelter. It seems that they did have about 5 open beds but he didn’t have the authority to put me in them. They were beds left vacant by men who had not returned on the previous Friday night. Tony said that this kind of thing happens frequently indicating that what often happens is that men stay out and drink over the weekends and because it is the weekend, they do not lose their beds as they would if they behaved this way during the week. The invisible policy (or tradition) had been practiced for sometime: Only the Case Managers had the authority to evict the men who didn’t come back and the Case Managers did not work on the weekend. The end result appeared to be that guys like me couldn’t have a safe place to stay because the system had a loophole. The whole thing made me think about loopholes like this in our ‘system’ at Good Works and who gets penalized. The whole thing made me reflect upon our whole system of helping the poor. I wondered what kind of lasting impact we were making into the lives of the men and women who come to us at Good Works.

…When you go around in circles…Um.

Time to move on. I left the I.M. Sulzbacher shelter and started walking again. I was tired of walking. I had to remind myself out loud that this is part of what I prayed for: the ability to “feel with” those who are homeless. I followed Tony’s directions and walked until I found the street he directed me to. What a surprise to find that this was the very placed I started from when I was first dropped off earlier in the afternoon. I felt like I was going around in circles. Well, I took the right turn on Laurel Street as Tony had directed me and kept walking and walking. I prayed but doubt entered into my mind and I began to feel fear. It was getting dark and I really wasn’t sure where I was or where I was going. I realized that I didn’t know the safe sections from the city from the dangerous ones and I didn’t want to be found foolish. I suddenly began to feel apprehensive. I walked passed a Baptist Church and saw many people going inside. For a moment I thought about going inside myself and I wondered how people would react to me. I wondered if they would talk to me and how they would welcome me. I wondered if they would judge me based on my clothing.

I walked down Laurel Street until I suddenly came upon several homeless people wrapped in bright yellow blankets and sleeping in a field behind some kind of industrial building. ‘Was this the back yard of the shelter?’ I wondered. I asked a young couple if the building in the distance was a shelter. “On no”, they replied. The young woman then told me “the Police don’t bother the people sleeping in this area”. She said that “as long as we get out here early in the morning the Police let us stay here”. She and her boyfriend then offered me a blanket. I could see several other people wrapped in yellow blankets sleeping in the corners of the field right off the city street. I told them I was going to check out the New Life City Rescue Mission but if they were full I might be back. She said something negative about the Mission but I don’t remember what it was. I left with a sense of gratitude for the kind gesture of the young couple. I have noticed that it is often the people who have little or nothing that appear to be the most generous. The people who have the least to give often end up giving the most. I wondered about this. I wondered whether the reason this was true was because these very people had come to understand a valuable principal of life not found among those who celebrate individualism. That is: better to make friends than to hoard stuff. In their own way, I sense that homeless people do value human relationships more than I had thought they did. When you are on the streets with little or nothing to call you own, you tend to see people differently than you would from the mind-set of self-sufficiency.

The young couple that had offered me a blanket gave me directions to the City Mission, the New Life center. It was right next door to the city bus station. I took the walk and arrived to see a small cardboard hand written sign on the front door, which read “NO BEDS.” As I entered into the front door of the New Life Mission, I immediately noticed the thought of the day displayed on the wall behind the front desk “Christians are like tea bags. You don’t see how strong they are until they get into hot water.” It felt good to be inside. I felt safe. The man who stood behind the area sectioned off for the staff asked if he could help me. I told him I needed a place to sleep. He explained that the beds were full. I smiled. I joked with him and said, “I’d rather stay at the Marriott anyway”. He smiled back. I asked if he knew where I could get something to eat. The man responded that dinner had already been served and that I would have to wait until tomorrow to eat. Several people were coming and going through lobby. I backed up and hung out near the window for a few minutes observing the coming and goings of different men and women. A woman came in and asked for shelter. She was put on a list and given the last bed. The staff seemed very occupied. One resident had a bible in his hand and was talking about having a bible study with some of the men. I asked if I could participate and was told that I could not because it was only for the men staying here. I was then told that I would be going to chapel at 7:00 pm. I waited in the lobby for several minutes. One man came in and asked for and received a yellow blanket and left. Soon, another man came into the lobby and asked me what I wanted. I explained I needed a bed. He looked at the available beds and abruptly gave me one. I later understood that they kept five emergency beds open and they were going to give me one of these. Soon, one of the men in the Program escorted me to the third floor and gave me two sheets, a pillowcase and a blanket and showed me to a bed. The whole situation reminded me of my time in Indianapolis at the Wheeler Rescue Mission. No one at either place showed me a fire exit or explained any rules or ‘ropes’ to me. I put the sheets on the top bunk and wrapped the blanket inside the pillowcase so that I could have a pillow. The temperature was warm. I didn’t think I would need a blanket. I laid down, closed my eyes and began to pray. I was thankful. I felt peace. I was glad to have a place to stay.

Only a few minutes passed before we were called to go downstairs for chapel. Soon, all the men left the third floor and walked down the steps to the cafeteria/chapel, a large gathering room on the first floor. At least 20 rows of chairs had been set up and many people were already seated. It was a coed gathering. There were even a few children there. I noticed that most of the people respected the atmosphere and sat quietly.

I was tired, very tired. I had driven several hours the night before, stayed up late visiting with old friends and got up very early to speak at the Pinewood Presbyterian Church. I put my head in my hands as I listened. Several men led us in some singing. We sang several very upbeat but unfamiliar songs. Soon, a man in his 50s got up to preach. I don’t remember what he said but he seemed to be well received by the people. Chapel lasted about an hour and after a final prayer the men went upstairs to the third floor to get into bed and the women went to their mats on the first floor. It was about 9:00 pm.

While I don’t remember anything that was said during chapel, I do remember feeling quite tired from walking around a bit miffed that I was required to sit through a sermon as a condition of my having shelter. I continue to believe there are more innovative and more appropriate ways to share the transformational message of the gospel then to require homeless people to sit through a sermon as a condition of receiving shelter. I guess I still don’t understand why the system requires one set of poverty stricken people to sit through a sermon as a condition of receiving services (the homeless) and yet has no such requirement for another set of poverty stricken people who happen to have homes (the clothingless). This is the point I wrestle with a lot. When Jesus speaks of bringing good news to the poor, is this what he intended? It this the best we can do? Is this the best effort of all the resources in the churches? To mandate homeless people to sit through a religious meeting as a condition of having a place to sleep? May God help us (myself included) to be much more innovative and creative in the preaching and in the demonstration of the gospel to the poor.

I continue to struggle with the ‘methods’ of ministry I see in the mission system. In particular, I am wrestling with whether they are inviting the homeless to a performance or to a community. Maybe we need to explore the question of whether any of us would choose to participate in these meetings if we didn’t have to. Maybe the homeless smell the hypocrisy? What I’m trying to say is: Would we put on these ‘chapels’ this way if it was just for us? I argue a loud no. I suggest that these ‘out-reach’ meetings to reach the homeless are counterproductive. In fact, I wonder whether they actually undermine the gospel by their hypocrisy. If aren’t willing to go through these ‘hoops’ to eat and sleep, why should we ask the homeless to do the same? Why? Because we have a double standard. In the end, we require homeless people to do things that we aren’t willing to do ourselves.

Maybe if we really want to impact the poor who are homeless we should arrange to hold “our fellowship meetings” at a time and place accessible to the homeless and simply invite them to join into what we are already doing. This way, our meetings are not a performance but simply an expression of who we are. Maybe the real ministry is letting the poor and homeless see us as we are as we gather together for worship. Maybe the power of God is released when we invite the needy into our community. Maybe it is more about ‘social life’ than ‘spiritual life. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he calls us to lay down our social life. Maybe it is not until we include the homeless into our social community that the real power of the gospel can be transmitted. Here are a few suggestions to consider that may help to bring a bridge for the love of God to be transmitted:.

  1. Train several volunteers to conduct an interview with everyone requesting shelter. Have the volunteers sit down in a private setting with the client and ask the questions using a tone which promotes trust with the intent to create dialogue and communicate understanding. Using discernment and wisdom from God, these volunteers could find out the clients needs and enter into some kind of understanding in his/her thinking- specifically how the client views their own problem of homelessness. It is in understanding how the homeless think by talking with them using active listening that can lead us to an appropriate and relevant explanation of what Jesus did and said. This personal approach will seem almost impossible in human terms and vastly inefficient.. But with God, all things are possible and many things may seem inefficient. This approach provides an opportunity for ministry with the poor and discipleship of Christians. It places Christians in a vulnerable place where they will be required to use the discernment and spiritual gifts God has given them. Using this approach, these volunteers will have no power over the clients. Their role would be to listen, probe, and provide information, encouragement and support and convey the love of God to those who wanted to talk. Those clients who remained in the ministry would be given an opportunity to meet with these volunteers again about once or twice a week.
  2. Films/videos. There are several excellent films (both secular and Christian), which have a great biblical message and create a very good avenue for dialogue about issues which are relevant to the homeless and the gospel at the same time. Why not provide these films as options for the clients and lead a discussion of the content of the film afterwards while serving some refreshments. A discussion led by the Holy Spirit could bring the truths of the film to a place where God can use the film as means to provide ‘conviction’. Sometimes, the dialogue after the film with those who watched it could be a powerful means the Holy Spirit can use to promote truth. In the end, it is truth alone that will transform people lives.
  3. Testimony. Another option is to have different people come in during dinner and share the story of how God has worked in their life and how God has used them. A sign could be posted explaining that if people preferred not to hear the stories during dinner, they could eat later. That way, it would be clear that everyone attending the meal wanted to be there.

The psychology of choosing to be someplace that presents the Gospel compared to being required to be there is significant. I suggest that the very method of requiring people to hear the gospel undermines the message itself. Indeed, may I go so far as to suggest that in some cases, manipulation becomes the message? “God so loved the world that he required the world to sit through preachers as a condition of eating food and sleeping in a safe place”.

After chapel I went up to bed. I slept on the top bunk under a light in front of the bathroom. I put my shoes under the mattress and I wrapped the blanket inside the pillowcase. I slept in my clothes. I don’t think I slept well. Sleeping in a strange place is hard enough but sleeping under a light in front of the lit-up bathroom was really difficult. Most of the men took care of their personal business and went to sleep as well. Some snored. Some snored very loud. Others talked in their sleep. I was reminded how much discipline one must have on the inside to get through the night in a homeless shelter. I also became aware that providing a good nights sleep is a just and appropriate form of Christian ministry. When people don’t sleep well, they are often ‘on edge’ and vulnerable to easy irritation, anger and temptation. I know. I’ve both been there and done that!

Morning came much earlier than I had anticipated. At 4:00 am, most of the men were up and milling around the room. Breakfast was served at 4:30 am in the cafeteria. I managed to climb down from the top bunk, put my shoes on and make my way downstairs. I could see it was still dark. I arrived in the cafeteria to discover that everyone was having the same breakfast: fruit loops with sugar on top and coffee. I followed the pack and had a heavy dose of white sugar. Ugh. I remembered that this was the same breakfast served at the Salvation Army in Tulsa several years ago. I sat as long as I could and noticed the men picking up brown bags for lunch. I went over to the kitchen and requested a bag but was told that I had to sign up the day before for such a bag. No one ever told me that and there were not any rules posted regarding this. I was again reminded how important it is to explain things to our residents both verbally and in writing. I was again reminded that the “system” often seems cold and uncaring.

I wandered out of the cafeteria and outside to the front of the building. I noticed that there were no chairs or seats outside the mission; only a concrete wall. The building faced the city bus station where there were many metal seats. I sat next to a white guy named Mike. I listened as he spoke to a young couple next to him. The young couple had just come from the city’s labor poor (Flexiwork) located several miles away. They were expressing to Mike their discouragement at not finding jobs for the day. Mike listened and made comments. I listened too.

Soon we heard some noise behind the building. I walked over to discover an elderly man in a late model Lincoln dropping off a wide range of pastries and bread to the mission. I watched as the program staff loaded the food into carts and then into the building. Soon, one of the men through me a Danish and I shared it with Mike. I felt like a dog being thrown a piece of meat.

Mike explained he intended to take a walk over to the labor poor several miles away. I asked to tag along. As we walked, he told me some things about himself. It seems that Mike had been working as a groundskeeper for a company for the past 7 years. He was making a good wage but was laid off due to a change in ownership of the company. He said it was a Christian organization and because of the way he was paid, he was not eligible for unemployment. This confused me but I just listened. Mike was about 55 years old and had been living at his girlfriend’s house for the past few years. She threw him out about a month ago. This was the real reason he became homeless. But the streets were not new to Mike. I sensed he had been in these places before. I was grateful that he allowed me into his life.

After a great deal of walking through some of Jacksonville’s old but beautiful downtown neighborhoods, we arrived at a small beat-up building on a main street. I noticed about 20 guys waiting inside. There was no TV. The men just sat and waited for work. While Mike, went to the bathroom, I took the time to read the many signs of the walls dating back to 1996. I learned that if you wanted work; you had to be there to apply at around 6:30 am. You would be paid about $7.00 an hour and would not return to the city until about 4:00 pm. Immediately I observed that the men who worked the shift would not be back in time to get a bed at the shelter. I remember hearing from the shelter staff that we had to be back at 2:00 pm to line up for a bed for the next night. I was confused. Was the system of shelter at odds with the system of work?

Mike and I headed back to the mission and the bus station where we could sit. Neither he nor I had any money and without money one doesn’t have too many options in a city like Jacksonville. We passed lot after lot of use cars as we walked back. I knew we were in an area of the city that I wouldn’t usually walk in by myself.

We soon arrived at the bus station. It was filled up with lots of homeless people. This public area had become a magnet for the city’s homeless. I sat and observed a mentally disturbed women move from seat to seat dragging her belongings looking around to see if anyone was watching her. I talked briefly with a woman leaving the city mission program and returning to her home in Georgia. She spoke highly of the program but indicated she was a complete failure at sticking with it. The program she described was 7 months long and participants had to make a commitment for the whole time. For the first 2 months you work at the Mission every day all day (apparently, these are the people who run the day-to-day operations at the New Life Mission). Then, for about three months, you were sent to another location and then finally, you were brought back to the mission for the final months. Most of the men and women I met in the program were just starting out.

Mike decided to head for his girlfriends house, which was about an hour by bicycle. He hoped she would be home. He took off on is bike and I stayed and watched the people. I finally got the nerve to go into the New Life Shelter again and ask about their long-term program. When I inquired with the man at the desk, he asked me if I wanted an application. I said yes and he proceeded to give me a two-page handout to complete. I skimmed it to the point where it asked me to state the particular addictions I was seeking help with. It was at this point that I realized that the program was primarily (if not exclusively) for addicts. I attempted to take the application with me but the man at the desk informed me that this was not appropriate. I handed it back to him and left the building.

Since Mike had left, I decided it was time for me to move on too. It was about 11:00 am. I had heard from the streets that there was a place that served lunch close by so I headed in that direction. I ended up arriving about an hour early. There were about 10 men in line for lunch already. I discerned that this part of the city was a bit more dangerous than the area near the bus station. There was a large amount of broken glass, buildings in disrepair and sidewalks with lots of trash. I decided to just keep walking. I ended up finding my way back to the park where I was dropped off and would soon be picked up. There were several TV cameras and people were filming a TV commercial. I watched them and because of my ‘unkempt’ appearance, they watched me.

Time seems to pass slowly when you have no place to go. Time can be the enemy of the homeless and not the friend. As I waited for my friends to pick me up, I continued to see the contracts between the haves and the have-nots.

Upon departure, I left again with the stark and abrupt reality of these little visits: I have the power to leave and they don’t. Maybe this sums up the whole thing: homelessness at its core is all about power and control. The power we have or don’t have over our own lives and the power of others to control us. Homeless people have very little power and control left. Maybe that is why they seem so very difficult to help at times. Maybe you and I would be as difficult if we lost control over our lives.


*If you would like to photo copy this article for personal use or for sharing in a small group setting, please request this from the author first!

Keith Wasserman

Good Works, Inc.
P.O. Box 4
Athens, Ohio 45701