Sitting in my warm home, gazing at the tree adorned with ornaments of Christmas’s past, I am sipping hot tea and watching Balboa, with all the comforts I can want or need. But their faces begin to haunt my mind; one in particular, Miss Mary.
A simple mission to bring joy to those who know not what I know, whose pain I do not know, has left me with a broken heart and visions I can never again fail to see. We drive block to block seeking those whose addresses have no number nor street assigned. We don’t have to go far to see them for they are on every corner. They are the nameless, the forgotten people, the ones whose stories few care to know. They see us emerge from our car with gifts to give. They come from near and far to receive but a trinket, a mere token, most would say. But for them, these simple gifts of socks, gloves, toys, perfume, books, and blankets, mean that at least for tonight, this Christmas Eve, they were remembered. It is with joy and laughter, tears and hugs of gratitude, that we meet. I see their faces, feel their hopelessness, and surely grieve their losses. How can I have so much yet leave this place and feel that what I have is less than enough? How can so many drive past them without a thought of who they are or how their situation came to be? I want to sit and chat a while with each one.
I long to know their names and their stories, to hear of the dreams they once had. These bums who got addicted, grew lazy, and now wait for handouts; is this not how we see the homeless? Perhaps this is the lie we tell ourselves, the one that separates us from them; the justification that their problems are not ours. We rationalize their circumstance by saying “they did this to themselves,” or they “should have,” and “if only they would have.” We create a tale of their truth without as much as a glance into their eyes. I wonder how many who believe this lie give pause to really process all these people do not have; a dresser for their clothes, a bathroom to relieve themselves, a sink to brush their teeth, a bathrobe or slippers to give them warmth on cold wintery evenings, not even a hot cup of tea. These are such simple things for most, but for them, they are items of the royal.
Our comforts are immense, our gratitude is fleeting, and the thought of sharing is forever far from our hearts. The dollar we refuse to offer, the coffee we deem too much to share, the extra value meal too excessive for the forgotten, or the ugly sweater that hangs in our closet with tags for a year, it’s too much to offer. True these things may not change the faces on the streets, but I wonder, could they? To offer them costs which to you is so little, but for them they are gifts that offer another day of life. Who cares for the forgotten, who sees them, who thinks to give them a nugget of love or dignity? Judging them and ignoring them is so easy to do while wearing parkas and boots and sipping our Starbucks lattes. We step around them to go enjoy our $200 steak dinner, but the thought comes to our mind, “Do I have a dollar to give?” Surely, we do, but they will only buy drugs or booze or utter “that it is not enough”, and so we pretend that they are not there. We convince ourselves they are not worthy of our dollar, ignoring the voices beckoning us to give, to share. How odd it is we will punish our children for not sharing their toys, yet we are too busy, too self-involved, too greedy, and too judgmental to share one single dollar, with some stranger whose life’s possessions lay on the ground near them.
On this night of giving gifts to the homeless, five memories stay with me. They are not unique or uncommon, but they are mine. For one moment, I would like to make them yours too.
He stood there, swaying side to side, all alone at the edge of tent city. He looked around 50 years; his eyes were void and his body frail. I was sure that drugs were easing his pain, yet I was drawn to him. Ignoring the cries of my family telling me, “No, he looks crazy”, I grabbed a yoga mat and blanket and went to his side. I put my arm around him and placed the gifts in his arms. We spoke not one word, but our eyes locked, and for that moment, he was alive. It was like looking into the eyes of an animal and seeing their spirit. I tightened my grip around him and wished him a Merry Christmas before walking back to our car. Tears flooding my eyes, I watched him for a moment. He scanned the packages as if they were an illusion, then glanced back in our direction with a bit of a smile. I see his face now; how it was weathered and worn. There in his eyes, I saw the tenderness of his soul. Later that night we traveled back to find him again, but he was gone along with his gifts. Perhaps he found a bit of comfort there on the streets with his yoga mat and blanket. It is my hope that he will not be robbed or hurt by another wishing his new comforts for himself. I only wish I knew his name!
A man of 6’3”, bundled in a black coat approached the car. He was a big guy in his mid-50’s I would guess. For most, he would seem scary. His eyes absent of the evidence of narcotics, his speech soft and kind. I offered him a gift bag which he gratefully accepted. I asked if he had children that we could give gifts to as well. He replied, “I have 4 beautiful granddaughters.” I gave him 4 little girl bags. Tears filled his eyes as he took them from my hands. He told me how happy this would make them and how thankful he was for us making Christmas possible for them. We hugged as he encouraged others to come and collect a gift. It was clear that he was a person whose gentle voice could cause others to follow. I wanted to know his story. How did this become his reality? I wanted to know of his granddaughters, for they are generation three. Why did the pendulum swing this way for his family? He was not a drunken bum, but a seemingly kind strong and generous grandpa, cold and without a home to go and sit with his grandchildren on his knee. I wish I knew his name.
There she sat on a bus stop bench, wrapped like a mummy in a coat and blankets, with her worldly possessions at her feet, seemingly asleep. She looked to be in her 20’s and was completely alone at the stop. I wondered if she was dreaming for a bus that would come and recuse her from this cold lonely spot. I suspect that is not the case, but rather her thoughts were void of dreams, void of hope, void of anything beyond this moment. I called to my son to care for her himself. He said, “Mom, she is sleeping” I said, “No son, go anyway.” He stepped away from the car, gift in hand, and as he had been taught, announced quietly that he was only there to leave her a gift. Her eyes opened, her body clearly startled. My son spoke to her repeating "I have a Christmas gift I would like to leave for you.” A huge smile came to her face as she accepted the gift. She looked into his eyes and thanked him with immense sincerity and then stated, “I didn’t expect to have a gift this year, thank you!” We shouted Merry Christmas from the car. She looked to us and blew a kiss. In that moment, there was life in this young woman’s eyes; they spoke the message of thankfulness. She would be the one my son remembered on this night. Again, my vision was clouded by tears. I wish I knew her name!
At a stop light, I glanced to the car beside us. I saw two women in their early 20’s and in front, a young boy and girl perhaps 4 and 6 on either side of an infant carrier. I rolled down the window and asked if it would be okay to offer the children a Christmas gift? She did not hesitate in her response of, “Yes, please, and thank you.” I stood at window handing gifts to the children. The light turned green but neither of us moved for this moment was too important to comply with the change. The children smiled as if I were Santa himself. They were more excited than I could have imagined receiving the dollar store toys we offered. As I stepped back in my car, the women thanked us profusely. Then she, the driver, the mother of these children, lifted an infant of perhaps 2 months from her lap and asked if we had anything for her baby. I gasped for a moment as their lives flashed in front of me. These 4 children would likely never know the privileges, the experiences, the education, or the joy that my own know as normal. Their lives would likely be filled with hunger, despair, heartache, and greater challenges than I or you can ever imagine. They are children, innocent, without choice of their circumstance, forced to live in a life they would never have chosen. Will they too become forgotten people one day? Will they receive an angel that will spare and steer them from that life? Will they even grow into adults who choose a different path? I wish I knew their names!
Huddled up in the door of My Sisters Place Shelter, lay 2 women of their apparent 60’s. The air was filled with a cold mist now. It would surely rain soon. We all stepped from the car and walked to them to offer gifts and chat for a bit. The two women had coats and dirty tattered blankets covering their bodies. To protect them from the rain, they had black trash bags, likely taken from a city can. We asked if we could offer them small Christmas gifts. Miss Mary, lifted her head from the street and rolled to her side. She cheered our arrival, full of glee, speaking words like, “Thank God for you all! You don’t know what you have done! I owe you! Bless you.” Imagine, someone of her circumstance, saying to me, “I owe you!” I watched as she opened her gift. I had selected 4 tiny plastic color changing, Christmas trees, only 4 inches tall. My family laughed at me and said those are silly, but I didn’t care because, in my mind, someone would not know and may never have known, the joy of gazing at a Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve. It’s one of my favorite things of the season, so I bought them. Miss Mary happened to be a recipient of one of those little trees. When she looked at it her expression came to life as if it had magically powers to offer joy to all who could see. When I turned it on, she giggled like a little girl, marveling at her beautiful little plastic Christmas tree in the palm of her hand. Miss Mary was ill. Her cough was so bad she could not speak 2 words in-between. As she coughed and coughed, she continued to smile, ignoring the clear pain lingering in her chest. I remembered I had a bag of Halls cough drops in my car, so I ran to retrieve them and gave them to her. Miss Mary’s reaction would have made you think I gave her diamonds. Was this all I could do, all I could give to beautiful Miss Mary? The guilt of doing so little continues to engulf my heart. I worry that her days are numbered, that her end is near. Yet this woman, with nothing to offer but her heart, gave it to us freely with good cheer. I wish to find beautiful Miss Mary and sit and talk with her a while. I am so thankful I know her name.
Homelessness is everywhere. Homelessness is a condition, a condition of real people, with real faces, hearts and names. For some, this life chose them, for others they chose it. Regardless of the how, regardless of the why, regardless of the condition; they are people and their lives matter. They are someone’s daughter, mother, sister, aunt or cousin. They are someone’s father, brother, grandfather, or uncle. Your gift, time, or attention will not save them from their circumstance or change the causes of their why, but it will grant them a moment of dignity, a moment of feeling loved, a moment of being human! Is this not something all who are born should know? Do not judge them as you walk by, but rather give thanks for all you have, then offer a token, a gift, or a smile. You never know when a 4” plastic light up tree may be the reason Miss Mary offers to you something more priceless in return, the gift of her heart.