I’ve had hundreds of personal encounters with people who are facing homelessness. Nearly every person who approaches us at Speak Up and reaches out to participate in the writing and entrepreneurship programs is gracious and hopeful. They defy the stereotypes and humble me with their warmth and depth.
But there have been other times over the years where I’ve been the one reaching out—not because they are candidates for our program, but because it was the only human thing to do.
He lived in a hole like an animal
John had a bulbous red nose and wore a coat in summertime.
I picked him up on the outskirts of Uptown in Charlotte one August day where he’d been thumbing a ride. This was about nine years ago. I was a novice to helping people on the streets at the time.
“This is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me. You might be one of my best friends,” he said after we’d been riding together for five minutes.
We went to a local Harris Teeter so I could buy him a sandwich and some snacks for later. I didn’t know what else to do. He shared about how his mom, who’d been everything to him, had died. Then his wife died, and then he’d lost it and “went off the deep end.” He was articulate and soft spoken. He reeked of afternoon alcohol and carried shame in his voice. I asked if he had a place to stay or some sort of housing.
“I have a little hole in the ground, but have to move though. Some thugs beat me and took everything.” He pointed to the bruises and recent cuts on his face. When it was time to let him out and he began to shed enormous tears, he said, “You’re my best friend. I have no one else.”
As I pulled away from him, the tragedy and hopelessness of his situation was overwhelming and I was broken-hearted.
I wept for him.
Dying and desperate for love
A couple years later, one November morning as I drove into Charlotte, I spotted a funny figure in a ditch. I veered the car off the road and saw an old gaunt man wearing an enormous backpack and straddling an ancient mountain bike. His blue jeans were brown with filth; his tattered country jacket was one of many layers keeping him warm. Most arresting were his eyes. Tiny and blue, I’d never seen anything like them. Imagine looking at the face of a dog that had been kicked and beaten its entire life. It crouches in wary fear, expectant of further abuse. David looked like an animal. I asked him what he was doing and what he needed. Nothing really, he said. He told me that he was HIV positive after having been assaulted in prison where he’d been incarcerated for violent crimes. He was dying, he said, and his racking cough sounded deep and diseased. He was just a wanderer, going up and down the east coast, looking for something. “Three years ago, I camped behind the Bi-Lo, and a man there was nice to me. That’s why I came back here. But they cut down all those trees and the camp is gone.”
I heard his desperate need for love and community. He’d ridden his bike for hundreds of miles, hoping to find a guy he’d met in passing, whose name he couldn’t remember. Now he was just looking for a place to set up his tent and live quietly. His only hope was to not be disturbed or run off. He hoped for nothing more, just safety from further abuse. I said I could help him and asked him to meet me at a local Burger King that evening.
During the day, I reached out to a church I knew that had a dozen acres of wooded property and asked if he could camp deep in their woods. No, they said, too much of a liability. Which made sense.
In the evening, he was waiting outside the fast food place. “Look what I got,” he said and showed me two crisp $20 bills. “A pastor gave this to me so I could stay in a motel. I’ve got more in my pocket, enough for a week.” He checked into a cheap motel for a week, and that whole time I was trying to find a place for him. The shelter was out of the question—he was afraid of racial violence. Besides, he hadn’t been in the area long enough to qualify for the shelter anyway. I visited him for a few minutes every other day. Over the course of a week, his anxious face shifted, and he looked more relaxed, more peaceful, more human. One day, I stopped in to see him and he was gone.
Filled with regret, I wished we could have done more.
Twisted by hate
It was a cold and cloudy spring day. Rain was falling in torrents, and my wipers struggled to keep up. As I drove along I-77, a mile from my exit to home, I saw a hitchhiker. Although more experienced and wary now, I decided the least I could do was give him a lift to the McDonald’s less than a mile away. He climbed into the car, shaking off rain. He was thick and barrel chested, with ape-long arms and huge hands. His hair was close-cropped and he had two Nazi swastikas tattooed on his forehead.
He smiled spookily at me, and I noticed his teeth were jagged and most were missing. For the next five minutes, as we piloted to McDonald’s, he told me about getting drunk and then beaten up at a Black biker bar in West Virginia. He said he was on the warpath for revenge. He was racist and full of hate and dripping murder. I wished I hadn’t stopped for him and wanted him out of the car, rain or not. But somehow, despite my revulsion, I tried to treat him with dignity.
At McDonald’s, where I thought I could be done with him, he refused to get out of the car and asked me to take him to that nearby motel for the night. As he asked for motel money, he punctuated his requests with thick-fingered pokes onto my upper thigh. At the first poke, I recoiled away. At the second, I jumped out of the car. He stayed in. Rain falling upon me, I urged him to come into the restaurant. He refused and I realized that I had to buy my way out of it. Spending $32 to put him up for the night was the last thing I wanted to do, but it seemed like the only solution not involving law enforcement. I warily climbed back in and eased across the street to the motel.
I led Blake to his motel room door and he invited me in for a moment. I declined. As I handed him the bag of fast food, he leaned his face toward mine, trying for a kiss. I jumped back and walked quickly away.
At last glance, I saw that he was no longer looking at me. His gaze was fixated on two young Black men standing in the parking lot. Before driving away, I detoured into the manager’s office and warned the clerk, who was behind bulletproof glass, that their newest guest seemed violent and dangerous. She calmly smiled. “We’re used to it.”
Back in the car, I swallowed my revulsion—thankful to have escaped unharmed.
Three men. Bound by self-loathing, desperate loneliness, and hate.
I can relate. The unrefined landscape of my own heart has at times been selfish, bitter, and hopeless. I’m every day grateful that it is renewed by external love I can never earn.
So I would stop again.
The gifts that I have been given are meant to the shared. The love that I experience is meant to be passed along. Keeping those to myself would be the most criminal act of all.