The state that I live in has a fairly low unemployment rate compared to most of the country. Despite this low rate the number of homeless people and families in our community continues to rise. I can't tell you how often I drive through my small city and see folks of all ages holding up signs:
- "Homeless, please help me."
- "Will work for food."
- "Homeless, any help would be appreciated."
These signs break my heart. One homeless woman used to ride around town on her bicycle with a simple cardboard sign hanging from the back - "I'm hungry." I haven't seen her for a while and have wondered what happened to her. I've written about a number of the homeless that my husband and I have met over the past couple years and the strangest story of all was Gregory's story (bizarre to say the least).
A few days ago I was on my way home from the grocery store when I saw a young lady, maybe between the ages of eighteen and twenty, holding up one of these signs and, since I had food in my car, I pulled over to talk to her. After giving her some food, I asked her a few questions about her situation. She has a three-year-old daughter and has been living in a temporary shelter, but it frightens her every time they have to stay there. The shelter is not really safe for young, pretty girls and children (she is not the first homeless woman to mention this to me). She told me that a number of times kind people from around town have put them up in hotel rooms now and then but most days they have to go to the shelter. She is willing to work but no one has offered her a job as of yet. She thanked me for the food and I left...but my heart felt heavy all day. The next day I decided to go back to the same spot and (hopefully) talk to her again thinking maybe I could come up with a solution for her dilemma by connecting her with the local Catholic Charities, but she wasn't there. Instead, a little further up the road was an elderly man holding up a "Homeless, any help would be appreciated" sign. I didn't drive right up to him, instead I pulled into a parking lot and started praying. I pulled my Rosary beads out of my purse and for some reason I decided to give these to the elderly man. The beads were blessed and I thought they might comfort him. I had 5 dollars on me and decided to give him that, also. I prayed over those Rosary beads asking God's blessing upon this man and asked for St. Charbel's intercession, "St. Charbel, this old man really needs your help and I'm placing him in your care. Please help him." And then I touched the beads to a third class relic I had. I have no idea why I was doing this but I felt "nudged", so I left the parking lot and drove over to where the man was standing. I rolled down the window and said, "I'm sorry but this is all I have to give you right now, but I will keep you in my prayers." I handed him the money and then the Rosary beads. The look this man gave me almost made me burst into tears. It was such a look of shock and gratitude. He dropped the money into his bag and started caressing the beads with his hand. He looked at me and said, "Thank you for these." He was talking about the beads, not the money! I said I would pray for him and drove away. When I glanced in the rearview mirror he was still holding the Rosary beads in his hand. At the next red light I could still see him in the rearview mirror and I saw him make the Sign of the Cross and place the beads in his shirt pocket.
People often look down on panhandlers and those that are homeless. I sometimes hear people aim rude comments at them. But do you know what I have never heard? I have never, ever, heard any of the homeless make a rude comment back and I have never been treated with anything but kindness by these homeless folks. Not even once. It is a reminder to me never to judge by the outward appearance of any human being. I am not naive, I realize that some people are homeless due to severe drug addictions (these are the ones in the shelter that frighten the young woman I wrote about above). But the majority of the homeless people I have met so far do not fit into this category. Some simply suffer from mental illness and a good number of homeless people these days are simply people who are down on their luck.
There are times when I wonder who is actually helping who. We may give them physical support but I can't help thinking that, spiritually, they may actually be the ones supporting us. One never knows.