Thursday, May 7, 2009

Introducing Al: Our Venture into Homelessness

In the past few months, it seems that God has opened Matt's and my eyes to people in need all around us. Having grown up in a town with a large homeless population, I've always been extra aware of homeless people. But recently, God has been breaking my heart for these people, and breaking Matt's heart, too. I can't help but wonder what He's up to...

It started back in the late fall when my friend Karen and I got started talking about books. She loaned me her favorite book: The Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. I started the book in the evening, and could not put it down. It is the compelling story of a wealthy businessman and his wife, and how their lives intersect with one very special homeless man. There are a few twists to the story that make it more than just your typical novel. The coolest thing about this story is that it is true. The fact that the events of the book took place just a few years ago make it that much more amazing. I've mentioned this book before in my blog, and it is definitely worth mentioning this second time.

The next event that hit my heart was back in February. While we were in California, one of our supporters gave us a book that had made an impact on him. Under the Overpass, by Mike Yankoski, is another true story. It tells of Mike's mental, emotional, and spiritual journey as he spends a summer living as a homeless man in several cities across the U.S.

Both of these books gave me a new perspective on homelessness, and a view into the hearts and minds of homeless people. The books also sparked a fire in my heart...I want to do something to make a difference for these people--the poor, the widow, the orphan. At my recommendation, Matt also read both the books. While God sparked a small blaze in my heart, He is a feeding a bonfire in Matt's heart.

Then, a few weeks back, Matt and I met a homeless man outside of Wendy's. We could tell by looking at him that his life is tough. We bought him lunch, and Matt took a few minutes to talk with him. Let me paint a picture of him for you. His name is Al. Al is huge. Seriously, he's HUGE...probably somewhere around the 350-400 pound range. This weight problem comes from years of eating a steady diet of the least expensive food available. There's nothing like a 2-3 meals per day of McDonald's, Sonic, and Wendy's...
Al is an African-American man, probably somewhere in his mid-40's. His face is sweet and sad. Every time I've seen him, he is quietly standing close to the entrance of a fast food restaurant. He wears a t-shirt, a jacket, sweat pants, and slippers. No cardboard sign. No tin can. No pleas for help. He doesn't ask for anything, just silently stands there with his hands in his pockets and his eyes to the ground. Whether he tries or not, Al is a pretty pathetic character, and our hearts go out to him.

Since our first brief meeting with Al, we have seen him several times. One day Matt got to sit down with him over Cokes at Sonic and hear Al's story. He told Matt he had been on the street for over a year (although we've since learned it has been 10 years). He wears the slippers because he has gout, and shoes hurt his feet. He spends his days wandering our town, hoping to scrape together enough money to buy food, to keep himself decently clothed, and for bus fares around town. At night he usually stays at the homeless shelter. The cost for a meal, bed, and shower is $4. Some nights Al does not have $4. On those nights he walks the streets all night--it is too dangerous a place for him to fall asleep. During the heat of summer he rides the bus as much as possible. The bus is air conditioned. For those of you who aren't from around here, July and August are miserable months. It is not uncommon for us to have high temps of 105-110 degrees, with 80-90% humidity. At night it might cool down to the mid-80's. No matter what the weather, though, homelessness is difficult at best.

After his conversation with Al, Matt called the homeless shelter and arranged a time to meet with the director. There is so much to be done at the shelter. There are lots of repairs to be made and rooms that need painting. The center runs entirely on private donations. They are not government funded in any way. Food and clothing donations are always welcomed. Just as important, though, are people to come down and just spend time with the homeless who frequent the shelter. Not all the patrons are drug or alcohol addicted bums. Many of them are regular people who have fallen victim to hard financial times. There are even whole families that come in. It is heart breaking.

Matt and I have decided to be proactive in reaching out to the homeless in Central Arkansas. Our community group is adopting this shelter, and we plan to seek ways to help as much as possible. There are needs to be met, and we can meet some of those needs. We can paint and make repairs. We can sew curtains for the bedrooms. We can round up clothing to donate. We can buy extra rice and beans when we make a trip to Sam's Club or Walmart. We can take cookies and card games and go down and hang out with the people. We can put together toiletry kits. We can put on puppet shows for the kids in the shelter. The director says the adults love the puppets as much as the kids do. We can share the love of Christ by meeting practical needs, by caring enough to see these people and get into their lives. We are excited, and are looking forward to watching this ministry develop.

Maybe you have seen a homeless person around, and haven't been sure how to help. We all know the feeling of pulling up to a red light, and being the first car in line when a homeless person is standing on the corner with a cardboard sign. How do you respond? My first response is to mess with the radio, or pretend to make a cell phone call...after I lock the doors, of course. Maybe you've gone downtown to eat at a nice restaurant and have passed a homeless person sitting in a doorway, looking at you with haunting eyes. What do you do? My first response is to look right past that person, as if he doesn't exist, and keep on walking. Maybe you've been playing with your kids at the park, and a homeless person sets up camp in the middle of the lawn, close to where your kids are playing. How do you react? My first response would be to round up the kids and head out.

Matt discussed these dilemmas with the director of the homeless shelter. What is the best way to help a homeless person?
1. Do not give them money. Because many homeless people struggle with addictions, giving them money enables them to feed that addiction. The director told Matt that this scenario is very common: A person gives money to a homeless person. After the person has collected enough money, he will go out and get drunk or high. In the heat of the day or cold of the night, he will pass out. Because no one is there to rescue him, he will have a heart attack or a stroke. Likely, he will die. Who wants to assist in causing this problem!
2. Buy the person a meal. If possible, go for nutritious food.
3. Keep gift certificates in your car to give to the homeless person with the carboard sign at the intersection. $5 in McDonald's coupons will buy 5 double cheeseburgers.
4. Make sure the homeless person knows about the local shelter or soup kitchen. Look up the address, and have it ready to give out as necessary.
5. Donate to your local homeless shelter. They are very grateful for donations of food and clothing, as well as monetary donations. By donating directly to the shelter, you are equipping them to help the homeless break the cycle and get back up on their feet.
6. Call your shelter and see what volunteer opportunities are available. The problem of homelessness and poverty is growing in America, and many hands are necessary to meet these people's needs.
7. Involve your children. Use firsthand experience to develop a heart of compassion in them. Seeing kids in poverty will help your kids be more grateful for what God has given them. Let them choose some of their own toys or clothes to take to the shelter for homeless kids.
8. Pray for the homeless, and for the people who are ministering to them. God loves these people, and can use you to show them that love.
9. Ask God to give you His eyes and to break your hearts for these precious people.
May our hearts be broken for the things that break the heart of Christ. --John Biggs
10. Read the books I recommended at the beginning of this post!

I hope this post has been inspiring, and has opened your eyes to the needs of people around you. Do you have stories about your experiences with poverty and homelessness? Please comment or email me with your story.


Tammy Warta said...

this was a beautiful post, em. i got a glimpse of al when we were with you - he is blessed to know you.

Michelle said...

I put those books in my paper back swap queue.

My mother was homeless. It doesnt make sense but it really does happen. I have such a heart for them. Bless you for your efforts!

Hillcrest Cottage said...

Amen to the "don't give them money" part. As Americans, we think money is the solution to all things. It is so much easier to ease our guilt by giving a few bucks than to give up a Saturday to paint the shelter...might have to give up a soccer game or two.