Homeless Adventure #1

March 16, 2008

I have to thank our Mexican-American neighbor for taking me one day to his favorite haircut place. The price is cheaper than anywhere else. All of the workers are Vietnamese. And for some reason it is a favorite hangout for gang members; most of them wait outside while their buddy gets his hair trimmed to perfection. Every time I go, I set foot outside my familiar world of the highly-educated tech worker.

As I was walking in a few weeks ago, I noticed a couple of guys hanging out in the parking lot. Freshly shorn and having just paid in cash (instead of using my card), I was walking back to my car with small bills in my wallet, when I saw the same two guys. “Hey,” one of them said, “can you give us a hand?”

“How can I help you?” I asked, walking over.
“Can you spare any change?” he asked.
“Sure, what’s up? What do you need it for?”
“Aw man, we’re homeless. Anything helps.”

I had received $5 bills in change, so I gave them each five dollars. “It’s not much, but I hope this helps,” I said.

Their jaws dropped. “Oh man. Can I give you a hug?” Before I knew it, I was drawn into a large embrace (he was a big white guy), and even got a kiss on the neck! The other guy, a black fellow, extended his arms to me as well, and I got another hug. “God bless you, man,” he said.

The first guy added, “I hope God blesses you for that.”
“Oh,” I replied, “he already has. That’s the way it works.” I extended my hand. “My name’s Jon.”
“I’m Nick,” the big guy said. “And I’m Junior,” said his friend.
“I’m glad to meet you guys. So what’s going on — you’re homeless?”

Nick pointed at a nearby shopping cart with some aluminum cans in it. “Yeah. We spend part of our time gathering cans, and part of our time asking for help.”
“You know,” I said, “I know nothing about your world. How do you survive? Like, where do you sleep?”
“We sleep under the bridge over there,” Junior said. “You know, the 85 overpass? We have tents there.”
“Do you sleep during the day?” I asked.
“Oh no, we sleep at night,” Nick replied. “We have to gather cans during the day, before the garbage trucks come.” Junior added, “Yeah, we have to work with the garbage schedule.”
“But we have to be careful at night,” Nick said. “Sometimes the crazies come, and they slash our tents.”
“And we have to watch for the police, who try to kick us out,” Junior said. “So we stick together.”
“Junior and I have been partnering together for 10 years now.”
“Wow,” I said. “Like I said, I know nothing, so thanks for teaching me.” I shook their hands once more. “It was great to meet you. Maybe I’ll see you guys again sometime.” They thanked me again, and I drove off.

I didn’t get very far, before I thought: Wait a minute. One of the things I want to do in the Jesus Dojo is assemble care packages for the homeless. But what do they need the most? These guys can help me! So I turned back around and went back to them.

“I told you I’d see you again!” I said. They looked at me with curiosity. “I just had this thought. I’m part of a group that wants to learn how to help guys like you. So what can we do, what do you need?” I asked. Nick opened his mouth and pointed to where teeth should have been. “Dentistry,” he said. “I need to see a dentist. Oh, but, I realize that’s a lot of money for anybody,” he added sheepishly.
“Yeah,” I agreed, but filed away the thought: How can we provide dentistry for the homeless?

I explained, “We’re thinking about making care packages. So what would be most helpful, what should we put into these packages?”
Without hesitation, they replied in unison: “Hygiene. We need hygiene.”
“What?” I stammered back. They took turns answering in one unbroken stream:
“Deodorant, shampoo, soap.”
“See, we can get showers once a week at CityTeam, but we have nothing to get clean with.”
“We don’t want to be stinky when we go into places like McDonald’s.”
“Sometimes we’ll go into a place where the bathroom locks, just to clean up with the soap.”
“So hygiene would help a lot.”
“Yeah, like those small trial packages.”

What about clothes, I asked? Again, in alternation:
“Oh, we can get those at Goodwill.”
“I keep two sets: one to live in, one to wash.”
“But socks would be helpful.”
“We go through socks.”
“They get pretty bad. They can stand up by themselves.”

“OK, socks.” I replied. “But how do you do laundry?”
“There’s a laundromat right over there.”
I had no idea; I’ve never noticed public laundromats because I’ve never needed one. And then, I thought of Just One’s “Laundry Love” projects. I asked, “Would it be helpful if our group got soap and quarters, and you could do your laundry for free?”

This got them so excited, they were both talking at once.
“That would be great!”
“Yeah. Talk to the owner. Maybe he would get a tax break for it.”
“Wednesdays would be best.”
“Or Thursdays!”
“Just let us know. We’ll spread the word.”
“But what is this group you’re talking about?”

“Well,” I said, not sure what to say, “there’s a group that just started meeting in our home. I guess we’re kind of like a church, except it’s more like we’re tired of just giving our money to the church and expecting them to do something with it. Because, you know, the church is people. It’s us.”
“Yeah!” Junior exclaimed, “the church is people! That’s what I say!”
“Shoot,” Nick said, “you could even hold services in the laundromat. People would come.”

At this point things went in a surprising direction. A young man and two teenagers rode up on bicycles. They were not homeless. “Hey Junior!” one of them called. They exchanged greetings. “This white dude was looking for you.” They described him. “Calls himself Cowboy.” Nick and Junior glanced at each other. Was this somebody they wanted to meet, or somebody they wanted to avoid? Was he a drug dealer? Junior surprised me by pulling out a cell phone and checking some information. A homeless guy. With a cell phone. It struck me as odd at first, but I thought, if I were homeless, a cell phone would be one of the first things I’d need.

I took my leave. But I carry this encounter with me.

So, what’s next? How can I mobilize people to turn the Jesus Dojo from ideas into actions? I want to have a party where everyone assembles care packages. And I want to try a Laundry Love project.
(I also want to be mindful of any pitfalls, any dangers to avoid; I will ask someone I know on CityTeam for guidance.)
Who is with me?

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

10 responses to Homeless Adventure #1

  1. That sounds like an interesting yet perplexing experience. Thinking of you.

  2. Thanks, Amy. It was certainly energizing.

  3. Sounds like a great start… especially since you took the whole cell phone thing at face value.
    It’s tough to conclude what should be expected from “homeless” people. Certain luxuries may rub us wrong, but we have to let these guys posses more than a shopping cart and cheese burger.

  4. Cool. The hygene idea makes sense: one time when I was staying at a hotel (on business) I had the idea of giving the little soap & shampoo & toothbrush & toothpaste things from the hotel and airline to a homeless guy hanging out nearby. I was quite startled at how eagerly they were accepted. Makes sense…

  5. Brian, I agree. One thing I am learning is (surprise) they are individuals with unique stories.

  6. David, what a great example! Business travel amenities turned to a new purpose!

  7. Hi Jon – amazing story. What you folks are planning to do for the homeless is awesome. I actually stumbled across your blog quite by accident while perusing Doug Pagitt’s new book network. Great story – I will be praying for great outcomes for you guys. Blessings, Jim

  8. Jim, I’m glad you happened by! I see by your links that you are somehow connected to the Midwest Posse, whom I admire greatly. I value your prayers, because at this point the group I refer to is too new to be viable yet. I am trying to organize this “care package party” as a first step to establish the group’s DNA. Peace!

  9. Hey, one of the above comments reminded me of something. One of the folks where I work has a cardboard box on the top of their cube with a sign that asks for donations of people’s travel ‘amenities.’ These are then donated to our equivalent of CityTeam here in Boise for exactly this purpose. Perhaps you, Jon, and the folks at your Dojo could setup something similar at work where people are involved in business travel except ask them to give them to you for inclusion in your care packages?

  10. Randall: Wow. That is a great example! I will share that with the group.