The first homeless man I truly met was Tony.
It was cold and we were all bundled up, but I made a concentrated effort to not mention the coldness. I had only been outside for a few moments and this man had no home to seek refuge in against the frigid weather. My perspective of the cold was altered in the presence of a man who stood before me after successive days on the streets.
Tony was tall and kind. In situations where he easily could have been bitter, he chose to not be. I was with a group of pro-life university students and he never once made me feel privileged or self-indulged. One Saturday, a student bought Tony a coffee and I watched him graciously accept it, even as his cold hands shakily caused the coffee to spill on his fingers. My face was etched with the concern and sadness I felt as I watched the scene unfold, but Tony sought to comfort me in this situation. He told me to not be sad because even in his difficult situation he was still happy. That momentary exchange made such a significant impression on me.
In a couple of hours, I would return to my dorm room after a filling breakfast and Tony didn’t attempt to guilt me for the luxuries I had in life. Rather, he came to the cold streets of Pittsburgh to spend time with us. He accepted money or coffees when offered, but he said he didn’t like to look homeless. We wouldn’t see him pushing a cart around or laden down with luggage. Dressed in the warm clothes appropriate for the cold, he didn’t want to accept extra things that he would have to carry with him during the day.
Tony was the first human face I saw of homeless in a personal way. I heard him talk about how fearful he had been early one morning when the intense cold made it difficult for him to get out of the chair in an abandoned house that he had accidentally fallen asleep in. The reality of not being able to move for a couple of hours shook him as he faced the reality that he might die alone in the cold someday. Yet he was also very happy and enjoyed being around a bunch of young college students. He wasn’t near us because we always gave him things or because we were popular in the area. Tony enjoyed being with us and some of the students became his friends.
The second homeless person I met was Bill. He usually sat outside a McDonald’s on a cardboard box with a pocketful of coupons for different places. I only met Bill because a friend had met him and introduced me to him. When we would ask Bill what he wanted to eat, his requests were generally simple and he often had a coupon for us to use when we would make the purchase. He smiled often, but Bill’s voice is what is most memorable. All you had to do was ask and he would sing in a beautiful, rich voice, causing passers-by on the street to acknowledge the man sitting at their feet.
Bill had some interesting ideas that I couldn’t always follow. He called my sister “diamond” and graciously accepted whatever food we would buy him. I didn’t know much about Tony, but I knew even less about Bill. He didn’t come to us, we went to him. He told us a few different stories and then we would carry on our way, back to our simple lives that suddenly seemed far more luxurious after such an encounter.
So often I walk right by people who need help, yet I met Bill because I had a friend who didn’t do that. He said he couldn’t help but stop because all he could think about was what if nobody ever stopped and acknowledged them. This video made me think of that concept again.
I’ve been thinking a bit about these two men because last week my family served breakfast for a ministry that serves the hungry. At the start, the woman asked us why we came there that morning and she called on me right away. I said, “to help people” and then spent the rest of the time a bit frustrated that I hadn’t thought of something better. Because that wasn’t entirely why I was there. I wanted to encounter others and I know that meeting poor, broken people forces me to face my own poverty and brokenness. I met two men during this time that I’ve thought about in conjunction with Tony and Bill over the last few days.
After helping with the serving line, I got in line to eat breakfast. This part is always a bit uncomfortable for me and it is because of that reason that I force myself to do it. I wanted to clean and serve instead of eat because the activity was easier than meeting a human, seeing a face, encountering a person like me. I sat next to a Vietnam war vet and we talked for quite a while. He told story after story. They were filled to the brim with specific details and often spiralled into violence or affairs.
I soon noticed that his stories began to contradict each other. I’m not sure if he was intentionally lying to me or if he thought all the stories were true. Yet I realized that I had the freedom to not care if these stories were true or false. It wasn’t my job to dissect the truths of this man’s life or to determine what was the real story. Instead, I was free to see that I was doing my job for this man. I had helped serve his meal and I was sitting with him, listening to his stories, and viewing him as another person like me. Perhaps what he needed was simply for someone to listen to him.
After I helped clean up a bit, I met Bob. He launched into a conversation I didn’t expect, told me his health status, a bit about his job, and how he meets up with a buddy once in a while but they only have two beers max. Nearly everyone else had left and Bob kept chatting with me. He asked where he should take his vacation. I suggested some place warm and he agreed. I don’t know if Bob actually has that job he told me about and I didn’t need to find out.
Sometimes it is the simple practice of encountering people and listening to them that is what is called for in the moment. I didn’t fix any of their problems, from Tony all the way down to Bob. In the face of homelessness, I recognized that I couldn’t tackle that giant problem. Yet I could be with them for a while. I could ask questions, smile, and share a meal with a fellow human. For the moment, I could be with them, not analyzing motives but truly seeing the person before me as they shared themselves with me.
What that homeless man needs is exactly what I need. I’m not a problem to be fixed, but a person to be encountered.