Homelessness and the Ugly Cry

I hate crying.  But, a few weeks ago, I couldn’t hold back the tears after telling my husband I’d given money to a homeless family—a whole week’s worth of groceries worth, in fact—and still felt like I should have done so much more.

I first saw them outside of Smith’s.  It was late afternoon, and I had gone to grab a few last-minute items to make dinner for our friends.  I was just pulling into the store parking lot when my eye caught a beat-up car parked across from the lot.  A toddler was perched on the hood of the car, holding onto a young woman.  Next to her, an older man held up a sign, “Please Help.  Food, Gas, Lodging.  Anything Helps.”  Aside from the family, the sign caught my attention.  They weren’t asking for money.  They were only asking for the necessities of life, and ones that we often take for granted—food, fuel, and shelter.

I made a mental note to buy them some water and maybe a gift card when I went shopping.  Unfortunately, in my hurry to gather all my food, I checked out without buying them a single thing.  As I pulled out of the parking lot, their small group caught my eye again and I felt a twinge of regret—but I thought, “Oh well.  Maybe next time. I sure hope someone helps them though.”  And I drove on.

As I pulled farther away, though, I couldn’t stop glancing at them in my rear view mirror. I thought about the other times I’d driven by homeless men or women because, like now, the circumstances hadn’t been quite right to help them. The person had been on the wrong side of the road, or traffic was moving too quickly to hand them anything.  It had been too late, or I’d been in a hurry.  All those experiences built up in my mind, and suddenly, the thought burst out, “Not this time!  NO.” Before I could second-guess myself, I pulled into a side driveway and turned around, reaching the family in less than a minute. The man’s eyes widened as I pulled my SUV onto the shoulder and rolled down the window.

“Can I get you something from the store?”  I asked him.  He and the young woman looked at each other, then at me. “That would be great,” he said after a moment.

“Does someone want to hop in? I can drive you.”  I was mentally calculating how much time we could take in the store before I’d be unforgivably late.  Driving would be quicker, and less exerting, than walking.

“Why don’t you get in?” He asked the woman next to him, “It’s more proper for you to go.  You’re womenfolk.” He gave an awkward half-laugh, and at that the woman cautiously came around the car and hopped in the seat next to me.  “Thank you for coming back,” he called out. The boy clung onto him, and I saw him bend down to console the child, “It’s okay.  She’ll be back…” his voice trailed off as we pulled away.

In the short drive to the store, I chatted with the woman a bit. I was curious about what had brought her and her son here. Softly, she told me how her dad, the breadwinner of the family, had lost his trucking license because of his diabetes. After that, they’d come to Utah to live with family, but their family had not been able to help them as they’d planned, and they’d been sleeping at the homeless shelter [“It isn’t a good place for a family,” she’d said shortly].

Recently, they’d had a spot of good news—they’d gotten a slot in some state-funded housing. Now they were waiting for approval to move into their home—and were left stranded in the meantime. “I’m just grateful it isn’t winter, I hear houses are a lot harder to get into then,” she commented.  How much did she need for a room? I asked her.  They’d found a weekly rental for a good price in Salt Lake, she responded.  She told me the price.

I nodded, suddenly knowing what I needed to do. I walked to the customer service desk, calling out to her, “Pick up what you need.  This will only take me a couple of minutes, but pick something up.”  She looked at me for a second and then hurried away.  I went to the rack to the side of the desk and picked out a gift card for Smith’s.  As I meandered to the counter, the woman came back.  She held two water bottles and a bottle of Gatorade [only what she needed] and I paid for them.  Then I took out an extra $100.  It wasn’t the full amount for the hotel room, but I hoped it would be enough. I handed her the gift card, the money, and the bag of water.

She seemed taken aback when I handed the money and gift card to her.  “Thank you,” was all she said. I told her I hoped things would work out, then wrote my number on the back of her receipt. “What’s your name?” I asked.  I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten to ask till that moment.  She told me.  “I’m Jackie,” I said, “Please, call me if you find yourself in a bad spot.”  I handed her the paper, the image of her boy flashing in my mind.  He looked the same age as my son.  She thanked me again, declined a ride back to her family, and walked away.

As I walked back to my car, tears were already brimming in my eyes.  I pulled out of the spot and drove past them, not too quickly, so I could see her return.  She’d already put the drinks on the roof of the car, and was handing the Gatorade to the little boy.  He was jumping up and down excitedly, and threw his arms around her—out of relief she’d returned, or happiness at having a Gatorade, I don’t know which.  But that’s about when I started crying. I felt a deep pang for that child.  I wished I could make sure that boy would be happy every day.

Obviously, my emotions were still high when I got home, and when my husband asked what was wrong, the whole sobby story just spilled out.  He was incredibly supportive, of course; one of the things I love about him is his kind heart, so of course he was happy that I’d given money to that family. After all, at the end of the day, it was a sacrifice we could afford.  He kissed me and we hurried the kids out the door to drive to our friends’ house.  Hours of friendly company helped me to feel calm again.  But the image of that family just stayed with me.

I know some of you might think I shouldn’t have given them any money. After all, the whole story about needing a hotel room could have been a lie.  She could have used the $100 on drugs, booze or smokes.  That thought is why I hedged my bets with a gift card (“at least her boy will eat this way”, I’d told myself).  But do you know what?  I’m ashamed of that ungenerous thought now.  I wish I’d given them more.  More money.  More time.  More courage to tell the woman that helping her would be a joy to me—that making her family’s life easier would be a joy.

What if, instead of viewing the homeless with disdain, or fear, or even pity, we viewed our interactions with them as opportunities? We can learn from every person we meet; but when a homeless person asks for our help, we have the added privilege of being allowed to serve and help them.  Giving up that money wasn’t easy for us, but it was doable, and I’m grateful I had the chance to help someone in need that day.

As a Christian (and, I hope, a decent human being), it’s my imperative  to help out someone in need.  After all, Christ didn’t say, “Clothe the naked and feed the hungry, but only when it’s most convenient for you.  Only when you have an abundance of money.”  On the contrary; He told us to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the sick and afflicted. (Matthew 25: 34-40).  Moreover, He condemns those who speak of good works but, ultimately, do nothing to help relieve the burdens of the needy:

15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. James 2: 15-17

I hope, the next time I see someone in such need, I can remember that charge, and give more of myself.

Advertisements