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.
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.
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.
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.