It takes meeting people to really understand what is and isn’t there. Change is slow, time moves like tides moving along the shore, crashing up and down, going somewhere but always receding, slowly carving its way into the sand. It took meeting Lily for me to open the door to what it means to be without a home, on the margins some would say. It took feeling emotion, stepping into all the pain she was experiencing, a life that was and had been for some time washed away in the current. Something about this situation was different than other situations I had experienced before, almost like God revealed things in that moment that would open the gates for many more things to come. I was wondering what my role is in all of this mess and by the end of the night realizing that my role was right there where I was.
My roommate had started making dinner. We were having trouble with smoke coming out of the oven from the grease that slipped from the pan lately so he recently bought some oven cleaner to clean it up. This meal went much smoother, as I didn’t find myself running to open windows and turning the fire alarm off in a rushed panic. My other roommate and I were just settling down after an afternoon of hanging out with the neighborhood kids. We run an after school program in the neighborhood as a part of a nonprofit called Care Fresno. As a part of the program the people running the program also live in the neighborhood. We experienced what the residents experienced and we were able to give more than if we were just to come and go daily. And also, others were open to take more from us so our walls had to be guarded.
I heard a knock on the door and initially I thought it was probably one of the kids. I never thought I could get so popular until we moved in here, and now kids knock on our door all the time. I always wondered if it was because they had nowhere else to go.
“Eric, did you give food to someone the other day,” I heard my roommate yell from the doorway. I was doing dishes at the moment.
“Is her name Lily?” I responded.
Talked ensued and he responded back with a yes. And that is the first step to restoration - when you stop referring to someone as their title (homeless person) and start referring to them as their name. Lily was no longer a homeless person, she was a person with a complex past and wants and needs and dreams and all the like. I had met her a few weeks ago and given her food. I try to always have food in my car for situations like these, but I forget sometimes. We chatted for a bit and I told her I had to go but that she could come visit us at our apartment. Most don’t come around, but tonight she did and I think it was because she was at the end of her rope.
At first she spilled all her guts out on the floor, and as everything poured out, I caught myself in a situation where I didn’t really know what to do. Listen and do some more listening: that felt like the best thing to do, so that’s what I did. She had been without a home for quite some time. The construction workers who were remodeling the complex were letting her stay in a small shack she had built out of miscellaneous findings near the fence next to the road. Several things had been stolen from her from when she used to live out by the street. She had just got out of jail for stealing a shopping cart. She had been in there five days and then she was assigned to community service hours. Hurt by everything around her, she didn’t feel loved or wanted. And so naturally she wept.
My roommate and I stood watching her as she fell down to her knees on our doormat. I continued to invite her inside so she could get out of the cold and so I could also get out of the cold, but she continued to refuse. Eventually we got her to come into the home and she sat down right next to the door. It was a long time before she finished everything she had to say. My roommate and I just stood next to her and nodded for a time. I continued to ask her if she wanted to come to the table to sit down. She looked so helpless there on the floor. Lily continued to decline my offer, too weak to move from where she was.
And what goes through one’s mind when one comes across a new situation. The pressures of good and evil, of morally right and morally wrong, and all of the grey in between invade us and the moments stretch us. Am I doing something right? Who is this person? Are my roommates okay with this? This is my rest time, should I let her go? I don’t really want to meet people right now, is this bad? Is she going to use us? What do I say? What do I do?
Am I good?
And the last question hits us hard.
From the lessons we had in our class to what we read in the scriptures to what we felt in our hearts, this was something right. As the story flooded off her mouth, it started to match the story she had told me when I first met her, but more real, more emotional. It added to what was there and we started to learn about who she was. I gave my roommates a look and a nod and it appeared as though they were okay with this. It is the small, uncomfortable situations where we can’t communicate much that truly build us as a team. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that if we help someone rest now, then I will rest better later, as my heart will be calmed. And I don’t think my introverted tendencies are bad; if I were to climb in a hole to succumb to them forever, well then that might be bad. Everyone can use you, even the people you trust. I set my boundaries early by informing Lily that she couldn’t stay the night. That is against our contract with the apartment complex and a liability for the nonprofit.
Words to say, those were questions to bring the best out of her. And so what to do – one of my roommates texted me if we should call the cops. I shook my head no, we weren’t in any danger.
But am I good?
Eventually we got Lily to move to the table. My roommate finished cooking dinner, some tasty chicken wings, one of my favorite meals. We asked Lily to stay, well insisted even, because we had a few extra pieces of chicken. Something about the table opened up a new context. And the context matters. On the floor with us standing over her there was the oppressor and the oppressed – sitting at the table across from us was a person to another person. And the context changed the conversation.
Lily began to open up about how she used to work with the students in her neighborhood just a few years ago. Now she was in her forties, but when she was a younger mom, she used to talk to all of the neighborhood kids. The kids came to her just to talk because they knew she would be open to listening to them. She helped the people in the apartment complex from getting taken advantage of by apartment owners. From talking about how recently she has been homeless more often than she to how she wanted to go back to college to finish her degree, we saw a new light. And so this is the next step to restoration. The first is to refer to them by their name, the second, to build on something good.
We have a saying in our organization: “Broken can’t build on broken.” We can’t build on something that we don’t have; we can only build on something we do. If we only talk about the problems – it was homelessness for Lily – then we can’t start to build a new future. If we talk about what we have, then the possibility starts to seep from it. Lily had her memories, experiences, her dreams of passing college, her love of children, her family, her hopes, her wants, and everything in between, and though some of those things are but distant memories or long-lost dreams, they are still there and they are still something we can build on. The lights started to turn on as the moon shown just beyond our window that night.
Throughout the evening we ate dinner, watched an episode of the Office, talked about who we were and what we did with the after school program, laughed a lot, and Lily talked about the good and the bad, switching off between the two, never really in the middle. Like her life, flowing forward and backward in the waters, she felt as though she had no foothold on the bottom, and life took her like a river flowing to the ocean. I was standing on the shore watching, imagining what may have been and what is.
The evening started to turn into the late hours of the night and it was time to get to bed. We let Lily wash herself a bit in our bathroom. It took around an hour to get out of the house for she didn’t want to leave. Eventually when it was time to go, my roommate gave her a blanket, and I gave her some more food. I walked her out to the spot in the complex where she had built her shelter. We prayed and we went our separate ways. I told her I would check on her in the morning.
As I walked back to our apartment, I was stick awestruck but everything that had happened to her. It was still surreal for me to even imagine what life would be like without a home, on the streets left to the elements, where the government is out to get you and the strangers you meet could attack you. A life far from family, where home is the people you meet, for there is no building. Moving from one place to the next, praying that God will provide your next meal in some way, trying to reach at things that are good, unable to escape the past as demons haunt you when you sleep. There is more to her story that she told us that I am not going to tell as there is more to her story that is forgotten by most, left on the wayside. But God sees all of us in every moment, knows who we are and who we are to be, and watches out for us, placing people to walk in step with His will, knowing some will and other won’t, always loving, teaching us to do the same.
The first step of restoration is to refer to them by their name, the second, to build on something good, and the third, is to let them fly. We didn’t get to build on much with Lily, but we did get to build on something. We never got to see her fly.
The next morning I made her a bagel and walked out to the small shelter she had made. She wasn’t there, so I left the bagel for her. Maybe she would know that it was from me or maybe she was already on to the next memory. I don’t really have any way of knowing.
To allow others to change you is to grow. To allow others to change you is to open up, to be vulnerable: to get hurt. The people we serve are going to break our hearts, in more ways than one. The situations they are going through will hurt us, secondhand trauma some call it, and in turn, most will do something that hurts us, whether it’s steal or lie or make fun of or gossip or physically hurt. Lily never did any of the latter to us, and so some of the people we meet never do. Allowing her to change us was the best decision we could have made. Invite people in, get to know them, give, and allow them to give back. Life works better that way.
As I walked back to my apartment, I dreamed over the world she described just before she left our apartment. She dreamed of a world where every neighborhood knew of the homeless in the neighborhood and they all took turns taking care of them so the homeless were never hungry or thirsty, where they always felt loved. And nobody would want to be the homeless person because they are homeless, but for the person who is the homeless person, it would be alright. And people would be proud of them and say things like “that’s my homeless person” and “I want to be the first to serve them” and the homeless person would feel a part of a community.
In the story she described, there was no movement out of homelessness, there was just a state of being, content in who they were, and loved by those around them. There were people who gave because of who they are and reality flipped over as the earth turned on its axis. The tides that flowed along the shore, moving in and out, going somewhere but always receding, slowly carving its way into the sand, embodied the change that had taken place over the years.
And it’s the small people doing the small things every day, accepting the slowness of change, moving with the heartbeat of those around them, these are the people that help turn that dream into a reality.
And are they good? Many would say they are.