The wall photo that I found on Facebook Friday afternoon said it all, and I’ll share it here as well.
My lovely wife Amy, my youngest son Grant, my daughter Alicia, and I got to Pioneer Park in downtown Salt Lake City Saturday afternoon just a few minutes before the Inner City Outreach (ICOR) truck arrived there. By the time we arrived, there was already a long line of homeless people there waiting for items to be distributed.
Apparently, the word had gotten out at the homeless shelters very well in the previous days that the ICOR truck would be there that afternoon. I didn’t need to drive a couple of blocks over to Rio Grande Street to let the people know we were there. The people were lined up in perfect order, waiting at the park and anxious on a sunny, mild winter day. There was the start of a rush to form a new line once the truck arrived, but with me speaking loudly enough I managed to help keep some semblance of peace so those who had gotten there first didn’t lose their place when the line shifted about 15 feet to the left.
After parking our minivan toward the back of where the line would have to re-form once the truck arrived along the curb, we got out and I greeted everyone with my loud voice and let them know that I was a volunteer and that the truck would be arriving soon. In the meantime, I went along the line and shook people’s hands — greeting them and letting them know that I was happy to see them.
Many of them replied that they were happy to see us, and that our church’s ministry to the homeless was much-needed and greatly appreciated.
Unfortunately, we see just how true that is every time we go out. The numbers of the needy seem to grow each time. On Saturday, the numbers of the needy in wheelchairs reached maybe a half-dozen.
I tried to speak to as many people there as I could on Saturday. It was a day for me to get to know them, relate to them, show them a sense of caring. That’s what everyone involved in the ICOR ministry has tried to do ever since it was launched in the last 10 years or so, and many people have done much to help the ministry in many ways.
Here are just a handful of the stories I gathered in about an hour and a half, told in very condensed versions.
Uncle Buck — Yes, he’s called that in part because of the old John Candy movie of the same name. I asked that very question myself when he first told me his name.
Uncle Buck was a Vietnam vet, who was wounded there — shot in the back. That was why he was one of the people in wheelchairs at Pioneer Park on Saturday. He was wounded in ‘Nam in 1969, but he hasn’t been homeless since then. Uncle Buck once had his own contracting business, and he apparently did pretty well with it. He said he’d traveled around the world a few times.
His business started going downhill after a divorce. I’m sure his medical condition didn’t help with his financial situation either.
Uncle Buck stayed on the grass of the parking strip between the curb and the sidewalk the whole time I saw him and talked to him, while the long line waited behind the truck on the pavement, but he said he needed a pair of thermal underwear and some socks. I made it a point to climb into the back of the truck myself right then and there and get him the items that he needed.
When I returned with the items, I was glad that I made the special effort for him. There was a man just behind Uncle Buck’s wheelchair putting some items in a bag, and the man told me a bit more about Uncle Buck.
“You know, Uncle Buck is such a nice guy … he’s always telling people, ‘If you don’t have any food, you come see me because I have plenty,” the man said.
With his long, red hair and white-accented red beard, Uncle Buck positively beamed when the man said that.
“Oh, ya know what? I absolutely believe that from what little I’ve seen of Uncle Buck today,” I answered as I patted Uncle Buck on the shoulder.
We talked about Uncle Buck’s Irish heritage, how my daughter’s hair is red as well, how there might be some Irish in us as well with the name Miller.
Uncle Buck was one of the most positive, radiant people it’s been my pleasure to meet in quite a while.
“We all have to look at the bright side of things,” he said. “It doesn’t do much good to look at it any other way. People need to help each other in times like these, so I do what I can. If I can bring a smile to people’s faces in some kind of way, then I’m gonna do it. That’s really what it’s all about. That’s how I’ve learned to live a happy life. And I am happy.”
Uncle Buck was one person I met on Saturday afternoon who I won’t soon forget — if ever.
Mike — Not long after I spoke with Uncle Buck and heard about how he’s always willing to share whatever food he has with others, I met 41-year-old Mike. He happened to ask me if we had any bagged lunches at the time, which we didn’t. Unfortunately, the cookies that ICOR did bring to hand out had run out long before. But Mike reassured me that he’d be able to get something to eat soon at a soup kitchen nearby, so he’d be okay. Mike was the one I ended up talking to the longest on Saturday. We had a very good, intelligent conversation.
Mike has spent a lot of time in the Seattle area. He looks young and healthy enough to find work, and it seemed apparent that it wasn’t because of any lack of desire to work that he’s found himself in his situation. He’s gotten day jobs at places like Home Depot, but that’s about the best he’s been able to do. Aside from a trim moustache and a slight goatee on his chin, he looked clean-shaven.
Mike had a light coat covering a hoodie with the hood pulled up over his head, the brim of a baseball cap poking out. He seemed like a very common sense guy, someone who’s kept up on current events. He talked about the difficult jobs situation, which brought the conversation a bit into politics. He seemed to lean neither to the Republican nor Democratic side, though he did talk about how things were pretty good under the Clinton administration, started out pretty well under Bush Jr., but then things went totally sour — including for him — during the last four of the Bush Jr. years. He talked about outsourcing stealing jobs from Americans, and how difficult it’s been to get things to change under President Obama — even though, he believes, Obama has been trying.
“Everything he does just keeps getting blocked,” Mike said. “Meanwhile, you have people out here on the streets, wanting to work, wanting to contribute to society, like me. I just would like to see some common sense solutions to problems, none of the backstabbing and just focusing on getting elected. That’s what I’d like to see.”
Richard — I first started talking to Richard as he was standing patiently in line behind the truck, talking about how it’s pretty much impossible to control people when they try to cut in at the front of the line and near-fights break out when you do try to control them. There was a time or two when I had to tell people to “chill out” because a heated argument was about to break out on Saturday — something we see on a lesser scale every so often, for the most part everyone is usually very well-behaved with each other with only a few hints of grumbling, but on this day the arguments seemed a bit more intense and required a bit more firmness to handle them. I guess it was a good thing I wore my cowboy hat and more beat-up, “kickin’ around” boots, because there was definitely some “human wrangling” that was needed at times.
Richard appeared to be in his late 50s or so. Behind a stubbly face there seemed to be a very intelligent, very dignified character in him. It turned out, through conversing with Steve Binder, our church’s ICOR coordinator, that Richard had worked in the medical field. But Richard has medical problems of his own. He suffers (not suffered) from congestive heart failure. He said it would take $250,000 to fix it.
Richard isn’t exactly in a position to come up with that kind of money. He’s been homeless for seven years at one point prior to the present time. He’s now going on five months of homelessness today.
He’s just one of those people who seem bright enough that — without knowing his entire story — it makes you wonder how Richard ended up in the situation of having to stand behind an ICOR truck on a Saturday afternoon, while a church and its people show him how much they care.
If a nation can’t or won’t do it, at least some of its people can. This nation needs more than a few “angels” who dare to “walk in the footsteps” of the homeless.
- Whatever you DO for the least of these … (viewfrommiddleclass.wordpress.com)
- A day in the life of a homeless person (viewfrommiddleclass.wordpress.com)
- Puyallup volunteers count community’s homeless (thenewstribune.com)
- Annual tally of the homeless can have an impact on lives (heraldnet.com)
- Homelessness (novicejournal.wordpress.com)
- Housing the homeless in vacant buildings? (sfgate.com)
- The Bay Citizen: In San Francisco, a Push for Public Benches (nytimes.com)
- Volunteers count Oklahoma City’s homeless (newsok.com)