A smile can be food for the soul


I was 17 and homeless because of a lot of bad choices.  Maybe I appeared to fit the stereotype of the homeless, being there by choice. But ultimately I was homeless because that was the only way I could be in charge of my own life. I was the oldest of six children and I certainly knew responsibility, how to take care of myself and others.  But things changed for me around age 13.  I was sexually abused by a neighbor for a period of time.  By age 15 I was into drugs and the wrong crowd.  I left home feeling out of place and like a burden.  Every step I made seemed to put me further from where I wanted to be.

While being homeless I obtained an abandoned car to sleep in.  This was a step-up from sleeping out in the open. No two days are the same when you live in your car.  You can’t even park in the same spot for as long as 24 hours without being threatened with arrest.  I never could understand why people felt so threatened by me.  I had been sleeping on the beach if you can call it that.  The police made their beat once an hour and they were diligent. If you were asleep on their stretch of the beach you were awakened and told to move on. I think some of them felt bad about waking me up, but it was their job and they did it well.  On this particular night I woke up sweating, not from the heat, but because I had been dreaming, a bad dream.

Earlier in the day a lady yelled at me for being on her property, wait a minute I thought, a store parking lot was public property.  She saw me from a distance and started screaming at me to get off her property, that I was trash, that no-one wanted me there, and so on and on.  At first I started to reason with her, but the lady was having none of it.  It did not feel real.  It was like I was watching a scene from a movie.  I felt totally humiliated and hung my head and walked away, giving up my right to have a voice.

I woke up from the dream feeling that all over again, along with a very hopeless feeling.  It was as if all those years had culminated in this moment, too much responsibility as the oldest child, years of sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, quitting high school, abusive relationships, failed attempts at success.  I was hungry all the time and felt like I was hitting a brick wall.  I was humiliated and ashamed of who I was.  It was hard to reach out for help because I didn’t feel like I deserved it and when I did; I seemed to be taken advantage of.  That is why I was homeless.  I had been living in a community home with drug addicts and I wanted a better life even if it meant being completely homeless for a while.  I knew I could trust myself, I just didn’t trust others. It seemed like no matter where I tried to get a job or what I tried to do, if fell through.  I wanted nothing more than to change my life but did not know how to do it.  I had dreams once, really, not that long ago I thought.  I was a young girl who had her whole life ahead of her.  I only needed some compassion, a helping hand, some understanding, comfort for my soul and healing for my wounds.  I was still a child.

Even then I wondered where compassion was.  Today when I see the unearned contempt for the homeless I have to wonder when it will be their turn to be in need of some help, not a hand out.  Even the smallest of efforts to help can be like food for the soul for the homeless person.  I did manage to pull myself up out of that situation, although not without the help of others.

I tried to go back to sleep from that reality nightmare, but I simply could not.  I thought about the only friend I had at the time, Diane, a girl a year older than me who seemed so much younger than me.  She started up a conversation with me one day and was compelled to help me no matter how much I told her not to bother herself.  She would sneak food out of her house when she could and head out on the street and somehow she always found me.  During her visit we’d laugh and talk about the usual teenage girl stuff.  She’d always end with, “I’m worried about you.”  I told her not to be, but I was worried too.  She lived upstairs in an apartment and one day as she was throwing food down to me out her bedroom window her mother came out and saw what she was doing.  We were caught, I was ashamed and embarrassed.

She was a Christian woman and she had room in her heart although she was afraid of me and what influence I may have on her daughter.  She sat me down in their house and told me I needed to go to a shelter for help.  I was terrified.  You know I don’t know why, I just was.  I didn’t respond.  I only listened.  She was gentle and kind.  The kindest anyone had been to me in a long time.  Then I blurted out, “I’m pregnant.”

It was the strangest thing Diane and her mom both danced in joy and told me a baby was a blessing from God.  I was stunned really, as all this was too much.  She fed me a homemade meal which made me very sick, since I hadn’t eaten in so long.  She told me I still needed to go to the shelter and get help but tonight I was staying with them.  And then she asked me a very important question, “Don’t you have family?”  I tried to sleep in the real bed and adjust to being inside walls, but just couldn’t, I snuck out in the middle of the night heading for the beach.  Instead of sleeping I sat on the bench all night talking to God, hoping He was listening and asking for forgiveness, guidance and to be given hope.  I felt peace and love.  As soon as daybreak came I went to a payphone and called my grandmother in another state and asked if I could come live with her.  She was so loving and said she couldn’t wait for me to arrive.

Many years have gone by and believe me I have done my best at putting that behind me, but life has a way of not letting us forget.  I was headed to lunch enjoying the fresh air and sunshine when I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk.  My experience has taught me to always try to see the human being not their clothing.  His smile caught my attention and I looked into his blue eyes.  I was taken in by his warmth, but his clothes, hair and hands were dirty.  He was homeless, I didn’t have to ask.  I did what most people do, I walked right past him.  Maybe we forget where we have been, sometimes.  I went to lunch with my friends and when I walked back I noticed he was gone.

Something was wrong though.  Maybe it was guilt or even a flash of my own life on the street but I remembered.  His smile and blue eyes had somehow seared into my conscious.  I couldn’t get his face out of my mind.  It bothered me so much that I thought if I ever see him again I’m going to do something.  In face it bothered me so much that I decided to somehow find him.

Finally the day came when I did see him.  I was alone, going to lunch and way up ahead I saw what appeared to be this man digging through a garbage can.  My heart started beating faster and I was excited, you see I saw his smile and blue eyes every day since I had walked past him on the sidewalk.  The feeling that had been tearing at my heart all this time could now be quieted.  I stepped up my pace and went straight for my target.  The faster I went, it seemed the faster he moved.  He went from garbage can to garbage can reaching in and quickly assessing the situation.  I kept him in my eyesight but he was moving faster than I could in my office attire and dress heels.  I started to jog and was determined not to let him get away.  I could not live with this feeling any longer.  I caught up with him a little short of breath and mentally said to myself, “what am I doing?”  I stood beside him at the garbage can and could have changed my mind but as he started to quickly step away I yelled, “Are you hungry?” Then I immediately felt stupid knowing he was.  He turned looked me right in the eye and said, “Yes ma’am.” I told him if he would come with me to a sandwich shop I would buy him something to eat.  He agreed and we walked side by side quietly.  We went into the sandwich shop and stood in line and I told him to order anything he wanted.  As we neared our turn I felt all eyes on us.  Up to this point I had been the most content person in the world quieting my conscious.  I started to feel embarrassed first for myself and then for this man.  He didn’t seem to notice and I decided that was my cue.  When we got our sandwiches he said, “thank you” while I was still holding the bag.

I don’t know what came over me next but I told him he could have the sandwich if he would allow me to join him for lunch.  He said, “Okay.”  He was so trusting and followed me without saying a word.  I led him to a picnic table that was hidden behind some office buildings.  It was a garden area that I used on days I wanted to escape the pressures of work.  We sat across the table from one another eating our sandwiches with me trying to make conversation.  I asked him his name to which he replied, “Randy”.  He said he was 30 but he looked so much older and to be honest I couldn’t make out much of whatever else he tried to tell me.  We made little eye contact and I told him I was concerned about him.  I asked him to at least visit a shelter to take advantage of some new clothes, a shower, a haircut and some medical attention.  I told him I understood if he didn’t want to, thinking back on how I felt about being told to go to a shelter.  I told him I cared about him.  I gave him the left over change in my hand, about $6.00.  He stood up and cleared our table, carefully removing my trash so gently. He looked me right in the eye and said, “thank you” and turned and quickly walked away.

I was left sitting at the hidden table, in the busy city at noon.  I thought back to that day long ago when I woke up in a car, homeless.  If only that lady hadn’t yelled at me, and said I was worse than trash.  If only she had taken my hand, gave me some food and said she cared, how different things would have been.  Something I had worked so hard to forget resurfaced and now, I was that lady.  I made a good choice.  Randy needed a little help and I was there that day.  We parted leaving Randy to forage on and I went back to the real world.  But I realized that by remembering, I was capable of helping if even in a small way.

One day feeling overwhelmed at work I walked down to a little park near the office for a change of scenery.  There was Randy asleep on a bench, totally covered from head to toe, but I knew it was him.  I watched him and after a while he pulled his head out of the blanket and waived at me excitedly and smiling, I flashed him the biggest smile back.  Maybe he knew that I knew something about his life for the moment.  This man had no idea how much he helped me remember, putting my life back into perspective.  I have not seen Randy since that day but often wonder where he is now.  Is he back on his feet, maybe somewhere helping someone else?  I hope so.  I know how good that can be.



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