On Thursday, January 23, it was really cold.
Like 27 degrees cold, with a wind chill of 18 degrees.
And where we live, that’s pretty cold.
I didn’t think much about the cold temperatures in the forecast at first glance. After all, we’re winding down what’s been a really harsh winter nation-wide, and these temperatures were somewhat normal even for us in January.
But then I remembered that on that particular Thursday night, we were scheduled to participate in the Point In Time Count of the homeless community for the county where we live. This meant that rather than being snuggled up by a cozy fire in the comfort of my own home on Thursday night, I would be out walking the streets while it was 27 degrees.
You may be wondering, “What’s a Point In Time Count?” Well, I didn’t know the answer to that question either until January 23.
A Point In Time Count is a count of homeless people that occurs in all the major cities within the same county at precisely the same time, on the same evening. This allows the county to engage in an apples-to-apples comparison across its cities that will more accurately depict the current homeless population county-wide. These counts are conducted in the winter because extremely cold temperatures will usually encourage the homeless to seek shelter. As a result, the count is likely to be more accurate than it would be on a night with mild weather. (The count includes all shelters and low-cost hotels within the county.) The results of the count are used to evaluate and apply for funding on both the state and federal levels and to help the county assess how it can best meet the needs of the homeless community living in its cities.
We got involved with this event at the invitation of a couple from our new church who invited us to join them as volunteers. So we bundled up in our warmest coats, gloves, scarves, hats, and boots. We stopped by Walmart to purchase blankets and hot-hands warmers to pass out to anyone we met on the streets. And then we met our new friends for dinner beforehand. After dinner, we drove to the municipal building where training was going to occur and met up with a number of other volunteers from our church and around the community.
We were broken into teams and training began at 9:15 p.m. Each team was assigned a section of the city that was depicted on a map by color. We were also assigned a police offer escort for safety. And we were given a stack of surveys and a bag of care packages to hand out in the event we found anyone. The surveys asked for a variety of information for any willing participants such as:
1. Their personal data including name, date of birth, number of children, marital status, etc.
2. The reason they are homeless.
3. The length of time they have been homeless.
4. Whether they had slept in the location we found them the night before and whether they expected to sleep there again the following night.
The shelters and hotels were covered by a few teams, and the rest of us were asked to hit the streets. We were told that we might not find anyone on the streets given the extremely cold temperatures. In fact, they told us that if we found 7-10 homeless people on the streets city-wide, it would be considered a large number on a night like this.
The count began at 10:00 p.m. and continued until 12:00 a.m. We were asked to report our findings back to the city by 12:30. We were also given the number of a shelter to call if we found anyone.
As we jumped in our friends’ truck to begin the search, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was praying desperately that we wouldn’t find anyone. It was so cold, even with all of my warm layers piled on. And I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be sleeping in those elements all alone. My heart hoped that all the homeless people had found a warm place to sleep for the night.
On the other hand, I couldn’t deny the harsh reality before us. Somewhere in our big city, there were homeless people who hadn’t made it to a shelter. Who didn’t have the resources to rent a hotel room. And who didn’t have any friends to spend the night with. And for that reality, I wanted to find them so we could give them the relief of a shelter, even if just for one night.
We made our way to our first stop, which was located behind a local big box store. We parked behind the store, got out of the truck, and began searching for people, being led by our police officer escort.
Part of our job was to look, not just for people, but also for evidence that people had been there. If we found evidence that the area had been occupied by homeless people at any point in time, we were asked to take a photo of the evidence and mark the spot on our map.
The search began.
We started by walking the grassy area between the edge of the parking lot and the train tracks.
We looked in drainage ditches.
We searched along the railroad tracks.
And we searched along the fence line.
And everywhere we looked, we saw evidence that homeless people had been there.
Unusually large amounts of trash.
Carpet rolls they were using as blankets.
Remnants of clothing.
And as we walked, I wondered,
Where did each of these people go to get out of the weather?
What was their story?
How long had they been there?
Where would they go next?
We passed this lean to shed twice.
But somehow, despite the fact that we shined a flashlight into it both times, we missed the man who was sleeping on a cot inside.
As we headed back towards our cars, we checked inside and around the dumpsters behind the big box stores. This is what we found.
A mattress stowed away under a dumpster.
And a pile of blankets to make a bed in the corner.
I’ll never look at the back of a big box store the same. It was truly heart-wrenching.
As we were making our way through all of the nooks and crannies behind the store, we heard some loud coughing. And as we turned to our left, for the first time, we saw the man who had been sleeping in the lean to. He was wearing only a hoodie and jeans, and he was walking along the railroad tracks. After walking a short distance towards us, he sat down near the tracks with his back to us.
He wanted to be found.
We caught the attention of our police officer escort and slowly approached him as a group. I checked the temperature on my phone. It was 28 degrees and dropping fast. The wind was ripping through the area with tremendous force. My eyes were stinging, and my nose was numb. It was too cold to be out at all. Much less without a coat or any other winter weather clothing to keep warm.
When we made our way over to him, we quickly figured out he spoke no English. Fortunately, we had enough Spanish among the five of us to make some headway with him.
We learned that he is 26 years old.
He has two children who live in his native country of Guatemala.
He’s been homeless for a year.
He had slept in the lean to the night before.
He planned to stay there the following night as well.
And he’s homeless because he’s out of work.
He spoke quietly, but he looked us right in the eye.
We asked him if he wanted to go to a shelter. He nodded his head slowly to indicate that he would like that. So the police officer contacted the person heading up the event so that she could contact the shelter which was located in another city within the county.
To be admitted to the shelter, he needed one form of identification. Of course, he didn’t have that. So for a brief moment, we thought we were going to have to leave him there with the blankets we had purchased from Walmart. That didn’t sit well, and we all felt defeated. So we began talking about how we could combine resources to put him up in a hotel for the night.
But then our police officer began to pull some strings. She contacted someone who contacted someone else who convinced the shelter to take the man in even though he had no identification. So he folded up his blankets, put them in a large plastic bag with a few other belongings, and hid the bag in the rolls of carpet along the tracks so he could find them later. A reminder to all of us that what we were doing for him that night was only temporary.
Then he walked with us back to the parking lot where another police officer was waiting to take him to the shelter. And for me, this was the hardest part to endure.
As the five of us (including our escort) stood and watched, the officer frisked the man from head to toe. He went through the man’s backpack. And as I watched, the tears began to roll down my face. I felt humiliated for the man, and it broke my heart.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why the officer had to do this, and I don’t blame him at all. But it was the punctuation on a very sad sentence in the story of this man’s life, and it cut me to my core. Two months later, I still think about it every day.
He was the only homeless person we found that night. Other groups found a few more, and we’ve heard some of their stories second-hand.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about homelessness since that night. No doubt, there are many sides to the debate. And I know that we all come to the conversation of homelessness from different perspectives. Some of us, as a result of personal or professional experiences, are somewhat cynical about the plight of homeless people. Maybe we’ve tried to help someone, and they’ve taken advantage of us. Maybe we’ve watched someone make one bad decision after another, and their homelessness is simply the byproduct of a series of bad choices. Maybe we’ve encountered someone who chooses to be homeless because they don’t want to deal with the responsibilities of life. And as a result of all that, we’re jaded.
And there are others of us, who’ve heard the very real and sad stories of people who’ve been dealt very tough hands. Those who have suffered abuse and neglect. Those who endure severe mental or medical conditions that make functioning in the main stream nearly impossible. Those who have experienced a lot of bad luck along the way. And those whose lives have presented one insurmountable challenge after another.
I’ve wrestled with myself over the years regarding these issues. And I’ll admit that I’ve struggled with how to respond to homelessness when I encounter it in certain situations. But I’ve decided it’s not my place to judge. It’s not my place to try and ferret out the homeless people who genuinely need assistance from those who might be looking to take advantage of me. And it’s not my place to turn my head and ignore the fact that there is a homeless population living in my city.
So what does that mean for me? For my family? I’ve been thinking about that a lot these last days. And I think it means that we need to find ways to support agencies and ministries that are doing meaningful work for the homeless in our new community. Organizations we’ve witnessed exercising stewardship over the resources that they’ve been given to do their work.
It means putting together “homeless bags” again. Kory and I started preparing homeless bags years ago during our dating and newly married years when we lived in the city and encountered homeless people almost every day. When we moved to the suburbs, we discontinued preparing homeless bags because, frankly, we rarely encountered any homeless people. (I’ll write more about homeless bags in the coming weeks.)
It means beginning a conversation with our children regarding the issue of homelessness, a topic we’ve avoided to some extent as a result of our concerns regarding whether our kids are emotionally prepared to shed this layer of their innocence.
And it means our prayers for the homeless and all of the people who are working to solve the dilemma every day.
I know that our family can’t solve the issue of homelessness on our own. But that’s not an excuse to do nothing about it. We can make a difference. We can impact lives. We can lighten someone’s load. In small and big ways. And that’s what were trying to do now.
If you would like more information about the organizations that are caring for the homeless population in our area, please visit the following links: