It had been a long day. Not long because I had crammed one activity after another into a very small window of time, but long in the tangible way I had felt every hour pass. Even though I arrived late to pick up my son from track practice, his older brother and I ended up having to wait for him to come out of the building. As he opened the van door, pitched his backpack into the van, and hopped onto the seat, I skipped my customary “Hi, how was your day” greeting. My mind was too harried to bother with perfunctory courtesies.
I swerved into the exit lane of the school driveway, but just then a man walking alongside a bicycle stepped into the crosswalk. He appeared to be talking to himself. At the precise moment when my car stopped to wait for him to pass, he turned and saw me. Now he was coming back toward the van. Oh no, not today, I thought. But yes, today was the day, and it has now become to me an act of mercy and life-altering grace that I will never forget.
I rolled down my window, lowered the radio volume so he wouldn’t hear the Christian music playing, and fixed my face with an impassive look that I hoped would indicate an absence of hostility but also a need to finish quickly whatever our interaction would be.
When he came to the window, I was expecting him to start explaining what he needed. But instead, he handed me a piece of notepaper that I could see was about half full of writing. As I started to read, he began saying something that I couldn’t quite make out, but I could tell he was probably hearing impaired. His note basically related that he was new in town, didn’t have a place to stay, had no friends or family in the area, and hadn’t eaten in three days. He concluded with a simple request for money to buy food.
Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the experience, I realize that should have been my first clue that something unexpected was about to happen. Even with all his apparent needs—without a home, physical and perhaps cognitive impairments, hunger, no family—he had narrowed his request down to one thing: I’m hungry. Can you help me get some food? I see this now for what it was: raw humility.
I looked up from the note and explained that I didn’t have any cash. Usually I at least have some loose change in my ashtray or the well in the driver side door, but not today. So being satisfied that I had dispatched my obligation as best I could, I apologized for being unable to help and began rolling my window back up. Unlike other people in his situation I’ve met before, he didn’t look angry, nor did he become aggressive. He took the note back from me, smiled, and started walking back in the direction he was originally going.
As I pulled out onto the road, I said to my sons, “I really need to start carrying some cash so I can help when situations like this come up.” They both mumbled, “Yeah,” and I could hear in their voices that surly cynicism people get when they hear someone say something that they knew would quickly be forgotten. They were right. I had said this before.
But this time it felt different.
Continuing in the vein of my day, I started mentally processing what had just happened. Unsolicited, I heard and felt God’s whisper in my heart, saying, “You don’t have any cash, but you can still give him something to eat.”
Duh, of course … I did have my debit card! In a flash, it hit me with such intensity that it came bursting out of my mouth without me really intending it to. “Hey, I have a card!” I shouted.
Now my sons were energized too. They both sat up straighter in their seats and started looking for a place we could stop and buy our stranger something to eat. At the same time, we all spotted the Burger King to our left. In my new excitement and haste to rectify my original un-helpfulness, I swung the van into the turn lane and practically skidded into the BK drive-thru line. We were all thinking the same thing: we needed to hurry because he might not be in the near vicinity for too long. My sons both started yelling things we could order, and we settled on grilled chicken, fries, and a sprite. We figured if he hadn’t eaten in three days, his stomach might be sensitive, so grilled rather than fried seemed to fit the bill. I also was price conscious because my own finances were pretty slim.
After we ordered and paid, we started looking for him. Panic began to rise as we scanned the street in front of us and the sidewalk on both sides and didn’t see him.
“There he is!”
My younger son spotted him in the parking lot of a corner convenience store where he appeared to be talking with another driver about his plight. I made a half u-turn into the store parking lot and pulled up beside our friend. When he shifted on his feet to face us, I could see on his face a flicker of recognition, but just shy of familiarity. My older son was closest to him, so I handed the bag of food to him and he reached out the window. A look of sheer surprise spread over the man’s face. Clearly he couldn’t believe we were back. My son handed him the bag, and tears welled up in the man’s eyes.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, and God bless you,” the man said. We blessed him back and pulled off.
I knew what had just happened, but I also knew something else had happened. That simple hand-off of food had ushered something “other” into our midst. A hush fell over all three of us, and my spirit bore witness that the interior of my van had been transformed into holy ground. The presence of God was overwhelming. Tears started running down my face, and I saw that my younger son was struggling to hold back the tears that sat pooled right behind his eyelids. Finally he said, “Gosh, he was so grateful … poor guy.”
I heard what my son said, but I also heard someone else speaking: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you’ve done it unto Me. Thanks for feeding Me when I was hungry.” Then again: “When you give to the poor, you lend to the Lord. Thanks for the loan; I’ll pay you back.”
I was speechless. On a day when I felt the burden of so much of my own need, and was almost near the edge of panic about my own money situation, the Lord Himself visited my little tribe and gave us an opportunity to see Him, and to be blessed not just by Him but with Him. God was there as real as I’ve ever experienced Him. I saw Him in the man’s unashamed humility, his open gratitude, his peaceful demeanor despite what had to be a grinding existence, and his ready forgiveness of my earlier rejection. This man may indeed be a pauper by earthly standards, but he was just as sure a prince by eternal standards. In that simple act of obedience, I had received so much more than I had given.
Since my meeting him that day, now more than a month ago, I have thought of him every day and prayed for him when I thought to do it. He makes me wonder how many times, in our harried and distracted living, we miss the opportunity to see Jesus because we don’t recognize Him when we see Him.
Our cities and urban areas are full with people who need to be fed, clothed, comforted. But I believe we pass Him by because of the “distressing disguise” in which he appears to us. Run-down tenements, trash-strewn alleys, and overrun housing projects are not usually our idea of heavenly places. But heaven is where Jesus is, and I think maybe He’s waiting for us to realize that truth.
I almost wish I could see my hungry friend again, just so I could thank him. Through his humanity and his need, he gave me a glimpse of Someone I desperately needed to see. He gave me the opportunity of a lifetime.
Ben Barnes has slept in abandoned buildings, hallways and alleys. For the past year or so, he’s been staying at the city’s largest homeless shelter, Pacific Garden Mission, in the shadows of the famous skyline.
“I’ve always considered myself homeless because I don’t have a home,” he said on a recent crisp, fall day in the shelter’s sun-splashed courtyard. But he’s fortunate, said Barnes, 44. He’s never had to sleep outside when it was below zero or snowy. He always found a friend’s place, building or shelter to crash in. He knows others aren’t so lucky.
As winter approaches, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people in this city of nearly 3 million are living on the streets: some in encampments, others hopping from corner to corner. And the numbers could grow without more federal aid and protections amid economic pressures from the pandemic.
This year, the coronavirus has forced homeless shelters to limit the number of beds they can offer. Pacific Garden Mission, for instance, is operating at roughly half its normal capacity of 740. And COVID-19 cases are rising as temperatures drop.
“What happens if we’re in the midst of a pandemic and a polar vortex happens?” said Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “We’re trying to keep the contagion from spreading and keep people from dealing with hypothermia. Is there the infrastructure in place that can handle that type of dual crisis?”
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Cold-weather cities across the nation are seeking creative ways to cautiously shelter homeless people this winter. Exposure to the elements kills individuals staying outside every year, so indoor refuges can be lifesaving. But fewer options exist nowadays, as coronavirus concerns limit access to libraries, public recreation facilities and restaurants. And in official shelters, safety precautions — spacing out beds and chairs, emphasizing masks and hand-washing, testing — are critical.
“The homeless check off most boxes in terms of being the most susceptible and most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, and most likely to spread and most likely to die from it,” said Neli Vazquez Rowland, founder of A Safe Haven Foundation, a Chicago nonprofit that has been operating a “medical respite” isolation facility for homeless individuals with the coronavirus.
Demand for shelter could grow. Stimulus checks helped stave off some of the pandemic’s initial economic pain, but Congress has stalled on additional relief packages. And though the Trump administration has ordered a moratorium on evictions for tenants who meet certain conditions through the end of the year, a group of landlords is suing to stop the ban. Some states have their own prohibitions on evictions, but only Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas do in the Midwest.
At the Guest House of Milwaukee, a publicly funded homeless shelter in Wisconsin, the pandemic complicates an already challenging situation.
“We’re like many communities. We never really have completely enough space for everybody who is in need of shelter,” said Cindy Krahenbuhl, its executive director. “The fact that we’ve had to reduce capacity, and all shelters have, has created even more of a burden on the system.”
She said outreach teams plan to connect individuals living outside with an open bed — whether at a shelter, a hotel or an emergency facility for homeless people at risk for COVID — and get them started with case management.
“The reality is we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to have space for folks because it’s a matter of life and death. You cannot be outside unsheltered in this environment too long,” said Rob Swiers, executive director of the New Life Center in Fargo, North Dakota, where the average high in January is 18 degrees.
His shelter, Fargo’s largest, plans to use an insulated, heated warehouse to provide roomy sanctuary for clients.
In Minnesota’s Ramsey County, home to St. Paul, an estimated 311 people are living on the streets, compared with “dozens” at this time in 2019, according to Max Holdhusen, the county’s interim manager of housing stability. The area just had a record snowfall for so early in the year.
The county has been using hotel rooms to make up for the reduction in shelter beds, and recently agreed to lease an old hospital to shelter an additional 100 homeless people.
The city of Chicago has set up emergency shelters in two unused public school buildings to replace beds lost to social distancing. As it does every winter, the city will also operate warming centers across Chicago, although this year with precautions such as spacing and masking.
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In September, the city directed more than $35 million in funding — mostly from the federal CARES Act for coronavirus relief — to an “expedited housing” program aiming to get more than 2,500 people housed in the next few years. The initiative plans to financially incentivize landlords to take risks on renters they might normally avoid, such as those with criminal histories or poor credit. The nonprofit in charge, All Chicago, is also hosting “accelerated moving events,” in which its staffers descend on a shelter, encampment or drop-in center and work to house everyone in that facility.
“In the ideal world, we would have permanent housing for them,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president of community health equity at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. “That is the only way we can protect people’s health. That’s the fundamental health issue. It’s a fundamental racial justice issue. It’s a fundamental social justice issue.”
Even though Black people make up only a third of Chicago’s population, they account for roughly three-fourths of those who are homeless, according to the city’s count.
Dr. Thomas Huggett, a family physician with Lawndale Christian Health Center on the city’s largely impoverished West Side, also called safely sheltering and housing people this winter a racial equity issue.
“We know that people who are African American have a higher prevalence of hypertension, of diabetes, of obesity, of smoking, of lung issues,” he said. “So they are hit harder with those predisposing conditions that make it more likely that if you get coronavirus, you’re going to have a serious case of it.”
Then add the cold. Dr. Stockton Mayer, an infectious disease specialist from the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, said hypothermia doesn’t increase the chances of contracting the virus but could aggravate symptoms.
As of Sept. 30, according to All Chicago, 778 people were unsheltered in the city. However, that number includes only people who are enrolled in homelessness services, and other estimates are even higher.
Some homeless people who plan to live outside this winter said they worry about staying warm, dry and healthy in the age of COVID-19. Efren Parderes, 48, has been on the streets of Chicago since he lost his restaurant job and rented room early in the pandemic. But he doesn’t want to go to a shelter. He’s concerned about catching the coronavirus and bedbugs, and doesn’t want to have to obey curfews.
He recently asked other unsheltered people what they do to keep warm during the winter. Their advice: Locate a spot that blocks the wind or snow, bundle up with many layers of clothing, sleep in a sleeping bag and use hand warmers.
“This is going to be the first time I’ll be out when it’s really cold,” he said after spending a largely sleepless night in the chilly October rain.