“They offerd me a tract…but what I really needed was a cup of cold water.” – by Steve Schwartz, Brethren Housing Association Executive Director

It was late afternoon. I was hungry. And thirsty. I was wandering the city…it was a warm day, not necessarily hot, but warm enough. I’d been hoping to find something to eat, to no avail, and seriously looking for a water fountain. Do they no longer exist in this era of bottled water? I’d had breakfast at the shelter, but nothing to eat or drink since. I passed by a lady that handed me a tract. I guess I looked like I needed it. Or maybe she was handing them to everybody. This tract urged me to repent, and warned of taking part in all the evil in the world, including watching movies. Bummer. I knew I shouldn’t have gone to see The Passion!
A few corners later, some other young girls offered me a handful of tracts. I declined. As I walked on it struck me that instead of a tract, what I really could have used was a cup of cold water…or a slice of bread…or better yet a carton of juice.
…..
It was April 2004. I had ended my job with a computer company the day before. In nine days I would start as the new Executive Director of Brethren Housing Association, and I wanted to make this week off meaningful.

So I walked out the door of my workplace at 4:30 and hopped a train to Philadelphia. I left with no money in my pocket and no plan in mind, other than to try and find food and shelter for the weekend and return home on Sunday. I left my wallet, watch, credit cards, and money…the props I rely on daily in my normal, scheduled life. Why was I doing this? Good question. As I rode the train I jotted some goals for the weekend:

1. To experience what it’s like to need to find a place to stay for the night, and hopefully to experience spending the night in a homeless shelter.

2. To experience what it’s like to need to find food for the weekend.

I would NOT expect to understand what it is like to be truly homeless based on this one weekend away. Understanding what it’s like to spend a night in a shelter is much different than understanding what it’s like to truly not have a home. I could not understand the suffering and hardship of being homeless, or the loss of dignity. My 48 hour experiment was time limited…and even though I had no money on me and could potentially find no food or shelter…it was just that—a 48 hour experiment. I had a return train ticket in my backpack.

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I got off the train in Philly at 7:20. At least I think it was 7:20; remember, I didn’t have a watch. At the information desk in the train station I asked where there was a shelter nearby, and I was given directions. To make a long story short, after walking 15 blocks, finding out this was a family shelter (no single men), being given other directions, getting lost, talking my way onto a trolley to another part of the city (remember, I had no money…my first lesson in resourcefulness), and walking several more blocks, I found a shelter at 10pm. Here I would sit wondering whether they would take me in for the night.

The guys sitting next to me in the waiting room were eating fortune cookies. I looked down and there was a fortune lying by my foot: “You will have a pleasant trip”, it read.
…..
While waiting, I met Ronald. Ronald was bright, well groomed, articulate, and friendly. He was in the army reserves. Had been for 18 years. Two more years to retirement. Ronald also worked full-time as a security guard at a gated community. He was trying to save up money for an apartment, but kept making bad decisions as he put it. He’d get his check and blow it. On drugs, I believe. He didn’t state it explicitly, but he was struggling with an addiction. He knew it was wrong, but couldn’t beat it. He asked me to pray for him, which I did and continue to do when I think of him.

At 1:00 AM I got a cot, which felt pretty good to my tired body. This would be my home for the next two nights. I met many other men besides Ronald. Many struggled with addictions that led to them to being on the street, others had disabilities. It was a depressing place. And yet there were many men who held their heads high as they walked out the door in the morning on their way to work.
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What did I learn this weekend? I learned that people on the street are real people, with names and faces. Well, I knew this, but it hit home again. Many have had bad breaks. Many struggle with addictions that hold them back. Like me, they are fallen and flawed human beings. Perhaps my coping skills are a bit better, but we aren’t all that different. I learned that people without a home have the same needs that I have…to be loved, to be valued, to be talked to in a manner that conveys dignity and respect, to have something to look forward to—a hope for a better future.

Oh yeah, almost forgot, I learned that free chairs are uncomfortable. Malls and parks and sidewalks are where you find free chairs (i.e., you don’t have to buy anything to use them). I got tired of free chairs. By the middle of the afternoon I was tired of walking, weighted down by all the extra gospel tracts I was carrying, and I wanted to sit in a comfy cushioned chair like the ones in a restaurant. But you have to pay to sit in those chairs.
…..
So, about those tracts…
In hindsight, those tracts really bother me. Ronald and the other friends I met in Philadelphia don’t need condemnation, and they don’t need someone to preach at them. They need love and acceptance. They need dignity. They need support to overcome their addictions and challenges. And on a practical level, they need a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. Wouldn’t it be great if the church could be known as the people providing love, acceptance, and a place to call home?

A week later I started working at BHA, a model of the church doing just that…coming together in the Harrisburg area to be the hands and feet of Jesus…sharing the love of Jesus by providing food, shelter, and new opportunities to get back on one’s feet. I think if Jesus were walking the streets of Harrisburg or Philadelphia, we’d find him doing this type of work: overcoming condemnation with his healing love.

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Steve Schwartz is the Executive Director of Brethren Housing Association in Harrisburg, PA.  Steve also volunteers on the Homelessness Prevention Committee, Service Delivery Committee, and the Board of Directors of the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness.

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You Never Know Where Kindness Will Lead, by Mary (Bacon) Rosenkrans

Most people’s stereotype of a homeless person is that they are dirty, drunk, rude, standing in lines for handouts, uneducated, and mentally ill. My brother Francis “Fran” Bacon fit that description at times, and yet there was much more than a passing glance might tell you if you saw him on the streets of Harrisburg.

Francis was born July 10, 1956, the youngest of four children—three boys and one girl—to Grace Gallagher and Arthur Francis Bacon. As the only girl, I assumed the role as his “little mother” early on and did my best to look after him until he passed away in November. He was my baby brother and he called me Mae, the only person to do that. (He also called me Sissy, but I always ignored that because it annoyed me.)

Francis was two years old when our father died of cirrhosis of the liver. I don’t know that Francis had many memories of our father. My father had mental health issues—which is why he drank—but he was also brilliant. And so was Francis (what else would you expect from someone named Francis Bacon).

The principal at our local parochial school realized early on (an act of kindness) that Francis and my two other brothers needed a better education than what they could get in Freeland, Pa., a small coal mining town, so they were sent to Milton Hershey School once they reached the age of 12. The school at that time was only open to boys who had lost one or both parents. The school provided everything—clothing, housing, food, education—at no cost to my mother (another act of kindness). She and I later moved to Hershey so we could live closer.

Francis graduated from Milton Hershey School with a full scholarship to Cornell University (more kindness), but at the same time his life-long struggle with bipolar disorder hit and he left college after only one year.

In spite of his inherited mental illness, Francis never stopped learning. He also never felt sorry for himself and created a life on the street and made it his community. So many people along the way showed their kindness and he, in turn (when he wasn’t drinking), returned his kindness to them. Elaine Strokoff and the people at Downtown Daily Bread were one of those. It wasn’t just the food, which is so critical when you are hungry and poor, but it was also the respect he was given and friendships that he developed that became a lifeline for him. One example is that they helped him order books and have them shipped to their address because he didn’t have one. When Francis was missing just before his death, they posted a sign on the wall asking if anyone had seen him.

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Francis “Fran” Bacon, at CACH’s Project Homeless Connect 2012

There were many, many others that were kind to my brother as well. Chuck Wingate at the Bethesda Mission who became a close friend, checked up on him and drove him places, took him shopping, accepted his phone calls and had his wife Nancy, a nurse, care for him when he was ill. April and Angel Ocasio from Isaiah 61 adopted Francis and he became Uncle Fran to their children. All of the caseworkers at CMU; the librarians at the Dauphin County Library; the bank clerks at Wells Fargo; Deb Ritchey at the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority; the Salvation Army; Father Rozman, Deacon Crudup and staff at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Shining Light Thrift Shop; the staff at Hamilton Health Center; St. Francis of Assisi’s soup kitchen; and Rev. Karin Pejak at Zion Lutheran Church. They all were a part of his community.

My brothers and I knew very little of this kindness. We are grateful and thankful to all. Caring is a two way street and one act of kindness often leads to another. We also had little knowledge of the life Francis made living on the street and only recently learned about the many friends he had. At his funeral, we heard about how funny he was, a great story teller, smart, generous; and, most of all, kind. We are proud of him and take great comfort in knowing this now.

So the next time you pass a homeless person on the street, don’t make assumptions. Just show some kindness. You never know where it will lead.