When I was a kid, “homeless” meant that you had lost your job and couldn’t pay your rent so you took turns living with relatives until you found a job. No one I knew lived on the street, under a bush, or in a tent in a canyon. I had never heard of such a thing.
When I grew up, I got married and moved to California where I discovered that there were people literally living in the street, under bridges, and in the canyons surrounding our city.
One fine summer day I decided to go to my favorite beach to soak up some rays. When I arrived I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen since the previous year.
“Hey Rick. I haven’t seen you around.”
“Yeah, I kind of fell off the map. I lost my job last fall and couldn’t find another one. I lost my apartment and ended up on the street.”
“You didn’t have a place to live?” I asked.
“No. I was living in a sleeping bag under a bridge behind the Warehouse restaurant and spending the day in a park a couple of miles away.”
“Are you serious?”
I Almost Died
“Yeah. I’m serious. Oh yeah, I almost died in January.”
“You did? What happened?”
“Remember that ice storm we had?” Rick asked.
“Yes, I remember.”
“I was at the park when it started to rain. By the time I got back to the sleeping bag I had stowed under the bridge I was soaked to the skin. I crawled into the bag and got it wet too. The temperature was dropping and it started sleeting. I started shivering and shaking and couldn’t get warm.”
“That’s terrible. What happened?”
“Sometime during the night I passed out. The next morning someone found me under the bridge and thought I was dead. They called the cops, who checked me and found out I was still alive, but unconscious. The cops called an ambulance and I ended up spending five days in the hospital. They told me I almost died. My body temperature had dropped below what it’s supposed to be to keep you alive.”
I wanted to cry. How could this have happened to my friend?
“Rick, you could have stayed at our house!”
“I lost your phone number. I didn’t want to bother anyone. I thought it would be a temporary thing. When I started sleeping under the bridge it was only getting down in the sixties at night.”
Where Do You Live Now?
“Are you still living under the bridge?”
“No. Someone I know ran into me in the hospital and he helped me get a job at a fast food place. After I worked there a couple of months I found another job in my field. I’m back in an apartment and doing good now.”
“Wasn’t there some organization or church that could have helped you when you were on the street?”
“There were these people who fed us lunch every day in the park downtown. I’m not sure who they were, but I don’t think they had any place for me to get off the street.”
“They fed us lunch? Who is ‘us’?”
“Me and the other homeless people around here.”
Homeless People Live Here?
“You’re saying there are other homeless people here?”
“Uh huh. Lots of them.”
“Where are they?”
“Living in the cracks where you don’t see them. Go downtown and you’ll walk right by them. Some of them are dressed a little shabby. Some of them look like anyone else. If you really want to meet some of them, go to the park downtown at noon. They’ll be there lined up for lunch.”
I was shocked. Homeless people in my town? How had I missed them?
Rick and I spent a couple of hours lying in the sun and talking. That evening at dinner I told Rick’s story to my wife. We didn’t think much more about it.
Will You Prepare Lunch For the Homeless?
A couple of years later a friend asked if I could prepare lunch one day the following week for the homeless. The idea made me uncomfortable. What if I caught a disease from one of them? What would I do if one of them wanted money, or wanted to stay at my house?
Reluctantly, I agreed to make lunch for about sixty people. I was about as enthusiastic as I would have been if I had been planning to go to Calcutta to visit the slums. I did not know what to expect when I would actually meet sixty homeless people.
When the day to feed the homeless arrived, the people I met, people who had been unknown and faceless to me suddenly were sitting beside me as we shared stew, bread, and cherry cobbler. I had expected filthy, stinking drunks with whiskey bottles in their hands and baggies of weed in their pockets. Instead, the people I met were not that much different from a lot of people I knew.
Some were poorly dressed. Some carried a backpack and sleeping bag. A few had shopping carts filled with their belongings. Several were probably under the influence of drugs or perhaps alcohol. But most of them looked and acted like I thought I might look and act if I were down on my luck.
How can I help people like these? Should I even be helping them? Maybe helping them just encourages them to continue living under bridges. I don’t have the resources to help them get into permanent housing. Shouldn’t the government take care of them?
Friends Help Friends
“Thanks man,” one man said after finishing his lunch. “I want to let you know how much I appreciate this. This is the only time I’ll eat today and you gave me plenty to fill my stomach until tomorrow.” Many of the people who ate the lunch I had prepared said thank you, the food was good, they appreciated the lunch and similar things.
How did these people end up on the street? Do I know people who have ended up on the street? Do I know people who are in danger of losing their homes? I thought the poor and homeless lived in large cities like New York and Los Angeles.
Something I had heard somewhere popped into my mind: “If just a cup of water I place within your hand, then just a cup of water is all that I demand.”
Hey, I can do that! I can’t give what I don’t have. But I do have a cup of water and I like these people. That’s a good place to start. But how do I figure out who needs help and what is the best way for me to help?
In the following posts we will look at how my wife and I along with a few friends have been answering those questions.
How are you answering those questions?
This post is part of a series on How to Help Homeless People by Sam Riviera. He and his wife have been loving, serving, and developing relationships with the homeless in their town for many years, and is writing this blog series to help all of us reach out to the homeless in our towns with the love of Jesus.
Here are more posts in this series:
Blog Series on Helping Homeless People
- Homeless People: Your Neighbors with No Address
- Learning to See Homeless People
- How to Help 10,000 Homeless People
- 16 Ways to Build Relationships with the Poor
- 10 Ideas For Helping Homeless People
- 10 Dos and Don'ts in Loving Homeless People
- Just Love Homeless People
- Finding Easter with the Homeless
- Loving the Homeless
- Helping the Homeless in the Rain