“And when was it that we saw you naked and gave you clothing?…Truly I tell you that just as you did this for one of the least of these in my family, you did it for me.” From Matthew 25: 38-40
I feel guilty about the homeless man on the church porch last night. I didn’t want to just leave him lying there. I wanted to make sure he was ok, but I was alone and it was night. I knew he was there because when I opened the door to leave the church he was laying right in front of it. He didn’t respond when the door hit him and he was lying so close to it that I couldn’t get out of the building that way. It surprised me and scared me a little since I was all alone at the church and it was late at night. He didn’t say anything or even grunt or move when the door hit him. And I muttered something like “excuse me” and he didn’t say anything. So, I decided to call the police so they could check on him. I figured he was probably a homeless person, exhausted from street life or passed out from drinking. But, just in case he was injured or in distress I decided to call the police.
It feels so callous to just leave someone out on the street to sleep. And I know hundreds, thousands sleep on the streets around this country and people walk by with barely a notice. The sirens blaring when the paramedics came seemed excessive, but then again why aren’t we more alarmed? When they asked him where he lived he said he lived on the street. He was too drunk to go to the shelter. So, I am not sure what my options were. Mostly I think about all the things I didn’t do and I think about all the things that are wrong with the situation. I didn’t give him shelter. I didn’t give him food or warmth. I was asked if it was ok with me if he slept there. I said it was fine with me, but that I am not in charge of the church so I couldn’t speak for them. I wanted to make sure he was ok—good impulse it seems, but I also was afraid at night, alone to do those things by myself. What if he was hurt? What if someone had hurt him? He might need help that I can’t give him. I feel terrible about my callous comments that “I would have felt bad if I had read about a dead guy on the porch and known I hadn’t done anything when I saw him.” I feel bad anyway—dead or alive, that I did so little.
Basically we confirmed that he had a pulse, that he was indeed responsive when the paramedics yelled at him, kicked him, and stirred him from his alcohol-induced stupor. We confirmed that he was not bleeding, in cardiac arrest, or brain dead. And then the paramedics and I walked away—constrained by a snarl of things from our own fears and assumptions to the thin social network there is to catch someone like “Mr. Davis” (the name he gave for himself) before they find themselves sleeping on the street.
We left Mr. Davis there with the police. For some reason, even though I said it was ok he could sleep there the police were telling him he had to leave. Maybe it was when I said I wasn’t in charge at the church that they decided to make him move along. Not sure, and I didn’t ask many questions because I was already running late for the babysitter back at my house with more bedrooms than we use. When I got home I wished I had at least given him a coat or a blanket or maybe the left over communion elements in my car.
Where are God’s fingerprints in this distorted situation? A man in need on the front porch of a church and all we did was confirm that his blood was still moving through his veins. What would redemption have looked like—a warm bed, alcohol rehab, maybe just a warm blanket to cover him with and a meal placed next to him for when he came to? I am troubled by how helpless I feel. After all, I’ve worked in homeless shelters, I’ve been involved in the issue politically, I’ve started soup kitchens, and advocated for the needs of those reduced to life on the street … all the stuff that I did more when I was younger, without kids of my own, and on fire with the indignity of homelessness.
I guess if there is any glimmer of redemption in this experience for me it is that I am not comfortable with this complacency that I seem to have settled into. I am going to find some way to be better prepared for encountering someone who is on the street and in need. The situation will always remain that their needs will outrun my capacity to address them. I know that from all my years of being engaged in work with the homeless. But, if I had been more prepared to put myself in Mr. Davis’ shoes last night there are some ways I could have given him more comfort than simply a quick check by paramedics. I will carry a blanket in my car. I will carry water and some kind of food that I can give. I will have a backpack with a jacket, hat, gloves, and clean socks. If my own child were to have to be on the street someday those are at least the things I would pray the he (or she) would have at the very least. I can’t be the social services agency that Mr. Davis needs, but I could be more than I was. Maybe the instincts of a mother are a good place to start. And God’s mercy is my prayer for us all.