We spent nearly three hours in fascinating conversation. These three guys were thoroughly engaging, totally honest, and had a great sense of humor. I walked away wondering how many homeless had similar stories. I know that many homeless people suffer from mental illnesses, not to mention drug and alcohol addictions. In fact, many of us probably assume this is the case for most of the homeless. All three of these battled with alcohol to some degree. One was a former New York stockbroker who drank himself into homelessness. Another was a former truck driver who had run out of work, made some bad decisions, and lost it all. He admitted he had “conquered my addiction to drugs but just can’t get past alcohol.” Both, however, were intelligent, articulate, and fully aware of the problems they had brought on themselves. The third gentleman was the only one who gave hints of a mental health struggle. Apparently he was a Marine veteran of the first Gulf War who never fully readjusted to civilian life. During most of the conversation he was quite coherent, but occasionally exhibited some fractured thinking.
I have never forgotten the hours with those men. Although I had previously talked with beggars and even bought meals for them, had at times encountered the obviously mentally ill street person, and had served meals to the homeless in shelters, this was the first time I had engaged the homeless on a personal level for an extended period. Some learnings and observations (certainly not scientific; simply based on these guys):
- Yes, drugs and alcohol abuse were a significant part of their spiral into homelessness. It was obvious and these men readily admitted as much.
- Homeless people stick together and see themselves as family. They have to.
- These guys were careful not to litter. When we were done talking and started to walk over to the restaurant to buy them gift cards, one of them picked up the trash around them and joked: “Hey, we don’t litter. This is where we live.”
- Even good “church people” can fall into homelessness. After lengthy conversation with these men about spiritual matters I discovered that two of the guys knew a lot of Bible. I am also convinced the former truck driver was a believer. He was simply one who had fallen into addiction and its ugly consequences.
- These guys had a great sense of humor. They were funny, self-deprecating, and more than willing to banter back and forth with us. One of the funniest exchanges was over the gift cards we were going to get them. Brent and I wanted to get cards from a nearby restaurant. The former stockbroker really wanted us to get them from Stripes, a convenience store chain. I laughed and told him I wasn’t as stupid as I looked, because I knew they sold beer at that store. He went on and on about me needing to “be a friend” and get him a Stripes card. We went back and forth, quite humorously, with me refusing and he laughingly insisting it was the right thing and easiest thing to do.
- Humor helped them deal with the ironic injustices in their lives. The truck driver had spent the previous night in jail for using a construction site portable toilet without permission. He said there was a sign prohibiting the use by outsiders, but he didn’t want to “go” on the sidewalk. He laughingly commented, “I spent the night in jail for trying to do the right thing!”
- They easily discerned which Christians and which churches had a genuine interest in them as people and who was just trying to score a quick spiritual good deed. They were quite complimentary of Bay Area Fellowship for their consistent, compassionate, and authentic ministry on the streets of Corpus Christi. Ironically, while we were talking two men came up and did the quick tract and “come to church” hand-off and moved on.
- They were keenly aware that most people are afraid of the homeless. They were both amused and saddened by this, because “most of us are nice people. We don’t want to hurt anyone.”
- Finally, they appreciate it when they are treated as people and not projects, boogie men, or objects of pity. They thanked Brent and me over and over for taking the time to talk to them and to do so as real people. They didn’t want to be treated with pity, fear, anger, or do-gooder condescension. Just people to people.