Homelessness and Contradiction

I’ve always understood that I have a soft heart for the homeless. I don’t say that in some self-congratulatory way. In fact, in some ways I find the business of engaging and caring for the homeless people I come in contact with much more difficult because of that. I wish I were one of those people who could feel confident that the best way to care for the down-and-out, the mentally broken, the victims of addiction I encounter on the street is to give to a specific charity I believe in or work at a soup kitchen. Or, I wish I could be someone who decides the best thing I can do is constantly hand out change or carry a PB&J in my purse.

When I was a tender-hearted high school and college student in small cities in Texas, my homeless encounters were few and far between. I took to the belief that I could not love too much and that I should have confidence in God’s protection of me. I gave out money with courage. I once ran home to make a woman and her kids sandwiches and brought them back to her. In college, my friend and I even gave a homeless couple a midnight ride to their lean-to off a shady dirt road near the railroad tracks (don’t tell my parents!). I had a certainty then, a confidence, that I should do what I could and trust that showing kindness would bless and offer hope.

Twelve years after the shady railroad track car ride, I’m stunned at my innocence and grateful that my body wasn’t discovered on the edge of town somewhere. I’m a mother now. I have to be practical. And I live in a city where my encounters with those in such difficult situations are daily. In our old neighborhood, I recognized many of the faces who spent their days in the park August and I frequented. Once I offered a young guy on the sidewalk an extra PB&J in my bag only to have him hold up the biggest bag of fresh carrots and celery I’ve ever seen. Only in San Francisco.

So, I’m in a constant struggle to know in each situation I encounter what my reaction should be. Should I give a couple of bucks? Should I pass by and say, “Not today”? Should I engage in conversation? How should I protect my son without teaching him that the most broken people we encounter are those we should avoid and fear? I long for him to be a man of justice and compassion. Those are not simple values to instill (especially when I feel so far from being that sort of woman).

This past Sunday, I walked the four blocks home from church alone, having shooed Chris and August off to the park, carrying two paper bags of baby clothes a friend had loaned me. As I approached a busy intersection near a bus stop, I realized that across the street, a man on the sidewalk was convulsing. From my view on the other side, it seemed no one was near him. A man and son stood 5 feet away, staring, people were waiting 15 feet away at the bus stop, a woman beside him hailed a cab. I walked toward the scene hoping for some explanation.

As I approached the sidewalk, I looked to the man and his son standing nearby. “Is he alright?” I asked. “Should we call an ambulance?” The man’s phone was up to his ear. “I am right now,” he said.

I looked at the convulsing man. He was visibly homeless. His stench was difficult to misplace. His convulsions seemed less like a seizure and more like something drug induced. I tried to speak to him and though his eyes were open, he could make no eye contact.

“This man is calling an ambulance for you,” I said as I leaned down toward him, 8 months worth of a baby in me and two huge grocery bags packed full in my arms.

I thought about staying there beside him on my knees. I could have held his hand or touched his arm. I think Jesus would have. It was daytime. People were all around. I would have been safe, right? But Jesus wasn’t a woman and he wasn’t a mother. And he didn’t have a husband who begs her to be careful. I didn’t touch him at all.

I said, “You’re going to be okay.” Then I stood up, thanked the man with the phone and walked two blocks to my house, hoping that the sirens I heard in the distance were his.

I wish I knew the truth of my heart. How much of me was repulsed by his smell, the drugged look in his eyes? How much of me was in a hurry to get to my Craigslist appointment so I could pick up a baby swing? How much of me was afraid? How much was wise?

Perhaps the question I should be asking myself is how long had it been since that dear man on his back on the sidewalk had been touched in a compassionate way by anyone? And how did I fail to offer him love?


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