Child opens door to conversation with, understanding of homeless men
It's funny how life's profound experiences happen when we are busy worrying about the tasks at hand. My task one day was to take a three-year-old boy with Downs Syndrome to downtown Spokane to meet his mom. I was anxious about this. This child is independent and strong willed. I was not sure how I would get him safely from my car into Starbucks where we were meeting. I parked on the street one-and-a-half blocks away, unbuckled his car seat, and braced for the challenge.
Immediately, he showed me my worrying was in vain. As soon as his feet hit the sidewalk, he was smiling and waving to everyone he encountered. The cold walk to Starbucks was full of wonder, warmth and joy. That alone was profound, but that was only the beginning.
We walked into Starbucks and searched for a place to sit. My thoughts were on how I would keep my little friend occupied in the busy coffee shop. We found an empty table between other customers and sat down to wait. He was curious about the man sitting to our left and sat down on the bench next to him. He scooted up close, practically sitting in his lap, began to grab things from his table and "talk" to him.
The man smiled. I apologized. The man turned to me with joy in his smile and said, "No, it's fine. I have a four-year-old son who I miss very, very much. This is nice."
For a few moments, he told me about his little boy and what he was working on, hoping to be able to see him again someday.
About this time, Mom arrived. We ordered coffee for us and food for her son, then sat back down at the table. The man sitting to our right was captivated by what he had seen and joined our conversation.
Then I noticed the men we were sitting among were homeless. In fact, they had been part of the impromptu tent city that sprang up outside the city hall to protest Spokane's sit-and-lie law. Our conversation then turned to the struggles of living in Spokane without a place to call home.
For 45 minutes, we talked about shelters and showers, staying warm, looking for work, what organizations in Spokane did well and what challenges Spokane created.
The man told me that just a few months ago, he had a house, two cars and a good job. Then things went bad, and here he was. He had friends in the Tri-Cities and wanted to go "home," but had fallen asleep on the sidewalk and was ticketed. He is now stuck in Spokane for six months because he has to go to Community Court every Monday. He could get a job in the Tri-Cities, he said.
We talked about tent cities. He said he didn't want to stay in the men's shelters because they were full of people who didn't care about making their lives better, and he didn't want to be around that influence.
I asked him about panhandling. He showed me a photo he had sent his mom of the sign he had made. It took him two hours to make it, taking his time to make it pretty. He wrote on it, "I'll pay you back," hoping to make people smile. Instead of people smiling, they looked down at him. "Some people go out of their way not to look at me. I don't care if they don't give me money. I just want them to look at my sign." He wanted to be acknowledged and see joy on faces of those he encountered.
Half way through our conversation, two of his friends joined us. I remembered I had heard the older man play his guitar outside of River Park Square a few months ago. We talked about music and guitars. He said he has a daughter living on the street. He came to Spokane to make sure she was safe.
The younger man just began work on getting housing. "Someone from Catholic Charities was driving by and stopped to talk to me about housing," he said. He was excited. We talked about Sisters' Haven near SNAP and Pope St. Frances Haven in Spokane Valley. He was beaming with joy over the possibility of having a place to live.
They had experience with Goodwill hiring them off the street to do work like picking up trash. They said they were paid $50 and given access to their store. They showed me boots, jackets and backpacks they had from Goodwill.
It was time for mom to take her son for a hair cut, so we needed to leave. I asked the men what they saw as their biggest need.
"Not food. You can get that everywhere." Instead, they told me three things: an end to the sit-and-lie law and access to clean showers, "because you've gotta sleep and you gotta be clean to get a job," and Sterno "because it gets really cold at night." I had never thought of Sterno.
My little friend, his mom and I left Starbucks. I was changed and challenged by the encounter with four strangers who in 45 minutes opened my eyes and become my friends. I do not know what I will do with the information I received, but I know this: God calls us to be light and hope and peace and joy in this world to those who are struggling to find their way. And a little child, an angel, reminded me of this truth.
Laurie Clark-Strait - Fig Tree Board
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January, 2019