Spending some time with the homeless (January 5, 2013 edition)

I’ve been imagining more and more myself lately what it would like to be homeless.

It helped to give me an idea once as a child when my family spent a night sleeping in our car, not because we were homeless but because of other “circumstances.”  The thought of possibly living like that again someday absolutely terrifies me, and I believe it was that experience at such a young age and the memories I still have from that time that drives me to think of others in that position so much today.

Volunteers help the homeless from the back of the ICOR truck on a bitterly cold afternoon last Saturday.  (Photo by John G. Miller)
Volunteers help the homeless from the back of the ICOR truck on a bitterly cold afternoon last Saturday. (Photo by John G. Miller)

It terrifies me to think of just how close we could be to that kind of situation today.  That helped to give me a different perspective when members of the Wasatch Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church went out last Saturday afternoon for the first time this winter to serve the homeless in Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park through its Inner-City Outreach (ICOR) ministry.

The weather conditions were pretty much the same Saturday as they’ve been since around Christmas — bitter cold, with high temperatures around 20 degrees and dipping down into single digits at night.  In the Salt Lake valley, that leads to an inversion which leaves dirty air all around.

Imagine breathing that in all day, every day.

It’s that biting cold air that’s the worst, though.  My time with ICOR on Saturday was mainly spent standing on the street behind the truck with newer items, trying to help keep people in line.  I wore cowboy boots on my feet, which matched the cowboy hat on my head and yellow work gloves on my hands.  I was out there for about 90 minutes.  By the time it was over, my feet felt frozen and it took a while with the heat in our pickup truck on full blast on the drive back for them to warm back up.

Imagine standing, walking, or sitting in that kind of freezer all day, every day.

Think about it.

As luck would have it, warm boots were plentiful Saturday thanks to our ICOR buyer who found boxes of new winter boots of all sizes at deeply discounted prices from a store that was going out of business.  I saw plenty of people with an absolute need for them.  If they weren’t walking around in cloth or mesh tennis shoes, they were in boots that were in desperate need of replacement.

The line of people waiting for help from ICOR in Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park Saturday afternoon was long and wide.  There were those not shy about having their picture taken.  (Photo by John G. Miller)
The line of people waiting for help from ICOR in Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park Saturday afternoon was long and wide. There were those not shy about having their picture taken. (Photo by John G. Miller)

Saturday’s line of people waiting to be helped may have been one of the biggest we’ve ever seen.  I talked to a man in an electric wheelchair who had a pair of service dogs with him, one on each side.  The dogs’ names were Abraham Lincoln and Zeus Almighty.  They can sense when the man is about to have a seizure due to a brain injury, sensing it 30 minutes before he has the seizure so he can prepare himself for it.

I talked to a woman waiting in line who remarked how ironic it is that she found herself on the streets not long after losing an administrative type job, and she has a bachelor’s degree.  She seemed almost embarrassed, feeling the need to explain herself.  She told of how hard it can be to make herself look presentable for a job interview when suddenly finding herself out on the streets.  Her story is actually not all that unusual any longer when you start getting to know the people finding themselves on the streets.

I heard a black man going through some of the storage bins filled with used items who said he had a job but he’d been unable to find anyone willing to give him a place to live for rent.  Sadly, I’ve heard from friends from other areas about how hard it can be for them to find a place to live as well, simply because of the color of their skin.

And then there are those who have jobs but they simply don’t pay enough to be able to afford a place to live.  We run into people in that kind of situation all the time as well.

As I prepare to start a new job of my own a week from today, outside of the area I was schooled in and spent a fair number of years working in, I’m wondering how long it’ll be until that same situation smacks me hard in the face until something better comes along.

No matter what happens in our own situation, though, I’ll never stop caring.  I already have a pretty good idea what it’s like, which helps to give an extra sense of compassion.

Memories of sleeping in a car through a chilly night never go away.

Never.