The first two I met were “Keith” and “Donna.” They were camped out on a sidewalk in downtown San Diego, with nothing more than a few blankets, some books to read, and a few personal possessions. As I kneeled in front of them, introduced myself, and gazed into their eyes, I saw “fear.” But then as I told them a little more about who I was and what my purpose was in stopping by to offer them food on Christmas day 2011, they began to warm up. Before long, Donna asked me if I had a business card to leave with her, and Keith informed me they were originally from the East coast. They’d been living on the streets for more than a year.
Before I go any further with this story, allow me to give you some background on how it all started, and how I found myself waking up Christmas morning with this thought in mind; to go to downtown San Diego in honor of His birthday and see what He had in mind I could do. The day before, on Christmas Eve, I received a phone call. It was one of the members of my Facebook page, one who I’d become friends with, and who is a vocal and loyal supporter. But it’s not like this call came from next door. This individual was calling from Athens, Greece of all places. We talked for nearly 45 minutes and we shared with one another our plans for Christmas. I informed her that, since my children were far away in Kansas, and that one of my sisters was the only family I had nearby, I would probably just be spending a quiet day by myself; perhaps even take a walk along the beach. She said, “Oh? I thought maybe you might volunteer or something.” I’m assuming she meant that by the way I’m always speaking of “Keeping Kindness Alive” or “Paying it Forward”, that sort of thing.
So, the next morning, bright and early, I awoke with a plan. It had been only a few weeks prior when, in a strange twist of fate, I’d gone to downtown San Diego for a meeting and mistakenly parked 10 blocks from my destination, whereupon I simply walked the rest of the way. And it was then when I saw so many of them. They were everywhere. Some were like Keith and Donna, a little spot set up on the sidewalk where they lived. Others were walking around and talking to….NO ONE. I found myself avoiding eye contact with those. In retrospect, I was wrong. I should have followed my own advice. I should have “stopped, looked, and listened.” These were human beings. Who knows what hardship befell them? Who was I to say whether their plight was self-inflicted or not? So, with those thoughts and images in my mind, I decided right then and there to go back. The timing was perfect. What better day than the birthday of our Lord and Savior? The one who died on the cross for MY sins so I could live, to honor Him in gratitude and respect by reaching out in some small way and help a fellow brother or sister?
It wasn’t long before He’d already begun formulating His plan. A block from my home, still 30 minutes from my destination, I stopped at a 7-Eleven for coffee. When I went to the counter, they were handing out free cookies for Christmas. I remarked to the clerk, “Candy” was her name (How appropriate is THAT! “Candy Cane!”), that I should probably take a couple with me and proceeded to tell her why. She looked at me and said without hesitation, “Hold on a second.” Next thing I know, she’s rummaging through the shelves, searching for sandwiches and cookies. Ten minutes later, I walk out lugging two HUGE plastic bags filled with goodies. Ah, if I only had a big red sack and a matching hat to boot, I’d have fit the part to a “T.” So off I went.
Back to the story. After Keith and Donna came “Wanda.” Now here was a lady who you’d never guess was homeless. She was dressed in holiday cheer, a red cap that said “Naughty” on it, matching red slippers, a radio tuned in to KYXY radio, 96.5 FM San Diego, which had been playing Christmas music all day, every day, since Thanksgiving. And in another ironic twist of fate, THE very same station from which I’d been obtaining ideas for tunes to share on my Facebook page since Thanksgiving myself! Ah, serendipity and the synchronicity of life. Don’t you love when that “happens?” Wanda was gracious, well-groomed, and told me her brief story. How she survived a double mastectomy years prior when she was 33 and here she was, at age 62, living on the streets, refusing to seek shelter inside, and really wasn’t looking for any handouts. She was simply making do the best she could. Totally admirable lady from Louisiana, grateful for the food given her that day.
Next up came Tonya, originally from Vermont. She had a nice place in the shade, a little umbrella propped up on the ground to protect her head, and was half-asleep when I stopped and said “hello.” For the next 15 minutes, she enthralled with me with her grasp for current events, her intellect, and her deep convictions that it wasn’t the big companies that were the problems our country is facing, but rather corruption at all levels of government. Of course, I surmised her view as slightly tainted since she’d been denied for an extension of her unemployment benefits, benefits that came after she was laid off working for a design company. All in all, a memorable encounter. Tonya got not only a sandwich, but cookies as well!
And then came “Sky.” A young lady, originally from Orange County, just up the coast north of San Diego, who was sitting in a chair on the sidewalk next to her boyfriend, “Nico” from Texas, who was laying down asleep on the sidewalk, suffering the after-effects of last night’s libations. Turns out Nico was the only one of NINE people I met that day who showed any signs of substance abuse. Thankfully, he never woke up. When he did, I’m sure he enjoyed the foot-long Italian sub-sandwich I left with Sky.
It was Sky’s story that nearly brought me to tears. She re-counted how she’d lost her children, who were now age 10 and 7, and who were living with her sister in Orange County. When she told me the last time she’d seen them was on Christmas Day in 2009, she broke down sobbing, awash in tears. I couldn’t help it. I got up from where I was sitting on the sidewalk nearby, walked around to where she was sitting in her chair, knelt down, put one arm around her and one hand on her face and head, gently offering words of encouragement. We talked and talked. By the time I left, she had stood up, smiling, and gave me the biggest hug. Of course, I returned it in kind, along with the address to my website and email, the same I gave everyone that day. She assured me she would try to write and share her story in more detail. I hope she does. Because I know what I’ll do with it! You got it, it’ll be right here, for all to see, read, and hopefully, be inspired by. That if you think you’ve got it bad, it’s a virtual guarantee, someone else has got it worse.
Moving across the street from Sky and Nico, I met “Tom.” Tom is 58 years old, an Army veteran trained as a medic, who was THIS close being sent to Vietnam before the war ended. He was from Bonita, CA. originally, and had bounced around from job to job for years before finally ending up on the street. I wasn’t able to obtain much more information from him than that but, after I asked if I could take his picture for my website, he perked right up, quickly adjusted his hair and baseball cap, and posed with a gleam in his eye.
The final two I met before I ran out of food were Curtis, who was originally from Baltimore, and I’m guessing in his mid-30’s. His compatriot and friend, Terry, was African-American who is originally from Buffalo. Terry was quite the character, full of energy, enthusiasm, quite religious actually, and who also firmly believed his current plight was merely a temporary roadblock before moving on to the next chapter in his life.
And that, right there, was a common undercurrent for those I met on that fateful Christmas Day, ALL of these people left me the impression that they had HOPE for their lives. And in spite of their individual stories, all of them appeared prepared to face whatever life had in store for them, with courage and dignity.
The reason why I shared this story in such detail isn’t to render an opinion, nor to illicit one, on the “whys” or the circumstances surrounding Keith, Donna, Wanda, Tonya, Sky, Nico, Tom, Curtis, or Terry’s lot in life. It’s merely to point out that this could happen to any of us. Some of these people, in particular Wanda and Tonya, if you met them in person in any other venue, you’d never know they were “Homeless.” To drive this point home even further, it was fitting that, at the end, Curtis and Terry shared with me the story of two men they met who had befell the same fate as they, both ending up on the street. One was a licensed attorney, who had lost everything in a bitter and protracted divorce. The other was a licensed psychologist who also found himself living on the street.
So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, look around you. Do you have a roof over your head? Clothing to shelter you from the elements? Food in your refrigerator? Some means of transportation to get you to and from work? Enough change in your pocket for a few incidental needs? Access to basic and affordable health care? These are the necessities of life. Everything else, all your material possessions, pettiness issues with your spouse, family, or co-workers, the age of your car, whether you have all the “finer things” in life, ALL of that and more, they’re meaningless.
The only thing that matters is what you have inside. What you have in your heart, soul, and mind. We came into this world with nothing and we leave it the same way. It’s how we make each other FEEL in between that matters. Be grateful for that. Be grateful for LIFE. And remember this as well, together we stand, so stand up and help one another.