I met Kevin (not his real name) right here on this sidewalk, but with an additional 12″ of snow and in below-zero temperatures. It was just a few days before Christmas 2013. My husband and I were eating in an adjacent restaurant and saw him sitting in there briefly, just staring at his hands. He was in pain from being cold. He had a look of loneliness that was haunting me as we ate. His jeans were soaking wet and so was his inadequate winter coat.
As we were leaving I asked the restaurant employees about him. They said he had been coming in and out all evening just to warm up. They said he could stay as long as he needed, but he would pop in and out for 10 minutes at a time. I sent him a silent prayer and we left.
As we were getting in the car, I saw him sitting on the sidewalk. I asked if he was okay and he just started crying. In Indianapolis, every person has a right to shelter when the temperature drops below freezing. He wasn’t aware of that and had no idea where to go. He had gotten into a fight with his brother where they both lived in a nearby rural county. He found his way to Indy that evening and didn’t know what else to do. He had money but couldn’t access it.
At this point it was irrelevant why he was out in the cold that night. He was going to die if he didn’t get inside. It was approaching 11 p.m. so pretty soon he’d have no where to go to warm up, except the hospital.
We called 2-1-1 and found a nearby men’s shelter that had capacity. As we drove to get him some hot coffee and then onto the shelter, we learned he is from Kansas City where my husband is from. He is a talented chef and had opened numerous high-end restaurants across the country. He was living in the same county where I’m from outside of Indy when he was kicked out of his brother’s home. The fact that our paths had crossed previously without us ever knowing it was not lost on me.
We’re all connected.
As we dropped him off, I gave him the $30 we had in our wallet and my cell phone number. He gave me one of the best hugs I’ve ever received, thanked me profusely, and cried huge tears of relief and gratitude. The fear and loneliness melted with each tear. His life had been spared that evening.
I never heard from Kevin after that. Whenever we walk downtown, I’m always looking for him. Not on the street, but walking to his restaurant job, doing what he’s great at. He taught me something so important I’ll never forget and I’d love to give him another hug and see how he’s doing.
- We need each other. Kevin may have needed emergency medical help or may have even died on the streets that night. I was not the first person to see him that evening. He watched hundreds of strangers pass him by sitting on that cold, snowy sidewalk. My husband and I are the ones who were willing to take the time to really see him—and then reach out. His heartache made my heart ache and I couldn’t turn away.
- We need to stick our necks out for each other. People who are homeless will tell you how de-humanizing the situation is. It’s not just that they don’t have a warm place to stay, or are forced to use the restroom outside. They feel the discomfort of the comfortable. It’s a lonely place when others actively avoid you and won’t look you in the eye. While we may want to pretend that some people choose to be homeless, that choice is made within a very sick vacuum. Often times, these folks are battling a fierce mental illness and have been abused and hurt by other humans. They’re ability to connect with others further isolates them. In return, those who are normal avoid them and treat them as less-than-human. It’s a vicious cycle. The only thing that breaks it is when someone stands up and says, “No more! You deserve help because you are you.”
- We all can be hard to love. I recently met a man who develops relationships with men and women living in “Tent Cities,” that is makeshift housing from tarps usually under highway overpasses or small patches of woods in urban areas. They have been living without a proper home for years, if not decades. He sometimes describes them as hard to love. It’s true and it is a gentle way of reminding all of us that it is possible to have a relationship with them, but it may be a little harder. They may smell bad and have rotted teeth. They’re also gruff and less than polished. They remind us how cush our life is and how much we value manners…then we get judgy and/or feel guilty. Here’s the deal: we all do things that make us hard to love. Walls and defense mechanisms come in many shapes and sizes. That’s why we need patience with each other.
- There’s no such thing as deserving and undeserving poor. I’m often approached by individuals asking for money. They launch into their story about why they’re down and out. Why? Because they know others are listening for that piece of the story that makes them worthy of your money. All commentary about panhandling aside, they’re always worthy. They’re worthy because they’re human beings. It really is that simple. When someone launches into their script about why they need my help, I ask them to stop. And I tell them that their business is for them to take care of. If they need help, and I have cash in my wallet, I will give it without conditions. Or if I know of other resources that could help, I’ll share those too. (2-1-1 is my goto.) My motive is between me and God and the same goes for them.
I’m so grateful that our paths crossed that evening. Not because I saved him, or anything close to that. (Saving is God’s/the Universe’s work, not mine.) But I’m grateful because he reminds me that the struggle is real, every day, just for some people to stay alive. Kevin helps me keep it real. And that my role is to stay connected to others like him, and everyone who is hard to love—including myself.
Staying connected is hard work and requires our ability to both give and receive. How have you been touched by the graciousness of others or taken the time to really reach out to someone?