by Brian Shilhavy
Editor, Health Impact News
It was the day before Christmas Eve, and as I drove to a city where I was to meet my sons for lunch, it was hard to find a parking spot, as so many people were out and about on the last shopping day before Christmas.
Everyone seemed to be in a good mood in this upscale downtown area where I was meeting my sons for lunch. Many were dressed in their holiday best, and there were families everywhere; children giddy with glee as they undoubtedly were looking forward to opening presents soon.
Since I had to park quite far away from the restaurant where I was to meet my sons, I had a few blocks to walk.
At one corner, a woman who was sitting down by herself and talking caught my eye for just a moment. She was on the other side of the street, so I did not get a close look at her.
“Why is she talking when she is all alone?,” I quickly thought, but I was late for lunch and I pushed the thought to the back of my mind thinking “she probably has an earbud on and is talking on the phone to someone.”
Later, as we were finishing up our lunch on a table that was outside in front of the restaurant (the restaurant was very busy, and the only table available was outdoors as it was quite cold out), a woman walked by that caught my eye.
She was not neat – she was dirty, carrying a backpack, smoking a small stub of a cigarette that I guessed someone had discarded, and had multiple layers of clothing and jackets on, well worn and dirty. I later learned she was in her mid 40s, but she looked older than that.
She noticed me looking at her, and said to me: “God bless you! Jesus has redeemed me, and God is the God of second chances.”
I replied: “Amen! He certainly is the God of second chances. God bless you too.”
We began a short conversation, and I was waiting for and expecting the imminent request for money – but it never came.
What came instead seemed to be a confessional, as the woman began explaining to me that she was a drug addict, but was trusting in God to change her ways.
I offered to buy her lunch, and to my surprise, she accepted.
I am no stranger to interacting with homeless people. I recognize that many homeless people are people society has passed by or given up on, and most are victims.
But seldom does a homeless person accept an invitation to actually eat a meal. Most are simply looking for cash handouts.
This woman was brutally honest, as she spoke quickly at times, and at times she was hard to understand as her voice sometimes diminished to just slightly more audible than a whisper. Her name is Patty.
I am not naive enough to believe that Patty was confessing all of her sins to us just to “clean the slate” with God and a true desire to start a new life – it is far more likely that her years of panhandling on the streets had taught her that this approach was very successful in solicitation.
And yet, there was some kind of connection with her, almost as if she was someone that maybe I had known in my past.
She was obviously delighted to be joining us at our lunch table, and her sharp eyes were reading me as much as I was reading her – and we both knew it. Maybe that is why after almost an hour together, she never did actually ask me for any money.
She was obviously disabled, as we had to help her take her jacket off, and to do simple things, such as applying ketchup to a burger which required help. She seemed to have some pain in her one hand and could hardly use it, and she explained that it was hard to eat because she had mouth sores.
Some of her mouth pain came from a recent beating she endured. Again, being brutally honest, she explained that she had a problem with men, and was caught in a cycle of passing from one abusive relationship to the next. She expressed a desire to stop these abusive relationships.
I was very curious about her past and what led to becoming homeless, so I began to probe her, and she was all too willing to open up and share her life story.
She explained that she had three sons, all adults now in their 20s.
But they were taken away from her at a very young age, and adopted out. The youngest was only two and a half years old when he was taken, and she had not seen her sons since they were adopted out.
She was a victim of domestic violence from her first husband, and the safety of her young children was blamed on her because she did not divorce him right away, she explained to us.
Her life took a downward spiral after that.
My son, in the meantime, began texting with people from his church, since he lives in that city. He found out that some of his church members worked at the rescue mission in that city.
We quizzed her about the rescue mission and other homeless shelters in the area, and for each one she had negative things to say about them. First, it was difficult for her to go to those places, as they have a “no drug” policy, and randomly test for drugs. She admitted to being hooked on drugs, and she knew if they tested her and she tested positive, she would be banned from other shelters and services in town.
Secondly, many of these places she said were dangerous, especially the other homeless women who go there. In some situations, even the staff are mean and abusive, she related.
She had tried them all.
I asked her when was the last time she used drugs, and she quickly replied “last night.” She explained that she was in a lot of pain when the drugs wore off, but that when she is “high” on them she has a hard time communicating and thinking straight.
Patty had a lot of things to talk about, and finding us a ready audience who were genuinely concerned about her, she didn’t hold back.
For example, she explained to us that she appreciated us giving her options about what was on the menu (she wanted meat, and ordered a burger, along with various additions she specifically requested). Most people who offer her food, she explained, give her no choice.
“They treat you like you are an animal. I mean, it’s their money and they can certainly do what they want with it, but most of the time they just decide what to order and bring it out without even asking me what I like, or what I want. It’s usually something they like.”
I realized then what it was that Patty wanted: dignity. She wanted to be treated like a real person.
Oh, she would have taken money from us, no doubt, and by her own admission she would have immediately used that money to buy drugs to ease her pain.
But it was obvious that Patty, a victim of domestic violence, and a mother who had her children ripped away from her by social services, was enjoying our company and being treated like a human being, as we listened to her and sympathized with her struggles.
Patty seemingly was being very honest with us, and I in turn was very honest with her. I explained that we could meet her immediate need to put some food in her stomach, but many of her other needs that she brought up, such as getting a place to live, having a cell phone, etc. – were not needs we could help her with, at least not today.
My son offered his assistance and gave her his name and phone number, and invited her to his church so he could introduce her to other people who might be able to help her. She gladly accepted that.
After praying for Patty, we went our separate ways.
As I walked back to my car, I wept. Patty represents so many mothers we deal with on a daily basis, especially through our MedicalKidnap.com  website.
Patty is obviously a fighter, and very independent. She chooses to live on the street rather than submit to the system, in many ways. But it leaves her vulnerable, and often defenseless.
I thought about some of my closest friends who are victims of domestic violence, and have suffered at the hands of child protective services, and I wept. Because but for the grace of God, any one of us could find ourselves in Patty’s situation.
I do not know if there is much else we can do for Patty. She has learned how to survive in a certain way over many years of her life, and change will not be easy for her. One positive result of our conversation was that Patty claimed to have “found God” about one month ago. This was the reason she started out our conversation about Jesus redeeming her, and her belief that God is the “God of second chances.”
She is a broken woman, but she is not without hope!
I will not pretend to be an expert on the homeless crisis in America today. In my years of interacting with homeless people, the one thing I have learned is that there is no unified reason why some people end up living on the streets. Many are ex-military, for example, and that is another story altogether . But most are victims of a corrupt society that we live in today.
So for those of us who are fortunate enough to be with family members this holiday season, let’s wake up and realize that real life does not always end up like we see in movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or your favorite Hallmark feel-good Christmas story.
For many people this holiday season, the holiday is just like any other day, and they are just trying to survive one more day. The joy of others around them probably only adds to their pain.
But if God brings these people across our path, we can respond by treating them with dignity.
Patty was extremely honest with us, something that is rare in my experience with the homeless, and I in turn was honest with her, letting her know I was not able to give her a lot of money today.
But I gave her what I could: a meal and some of my time, and a listening, compassionate ear.
Not all will accept this; I am sure most are just looking for cash to secure their next score of drugs. (And in most of these situations I do just give some cash and never see them again.)
But when you find someone who is willing to take some time to talk to you, pause for a moment in the busy-ness of your schedule, and realize that the person wanting to talk to you could be you some day. Take some time and show them a little bit of compassion and dignity.
I am not sure who benefited more from our unplanned meeting and lunch today: me or Patty. Patty taught me a lot today, as she did most of the talking and I did most of the listening.
Life’s lessons and truths will often come to us at the most unexpected, and sometimes inconvenient, times.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40)
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)
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