I’ve made a couple of connections over the past several months one man who spends every Tuesday and Wednesday night from 4:00PM-10:00PM driving a small church bus downtown loaded with food and drinks to pass out to the homeless. Another person that I went to high school with, but didn’t really know very well back then, spends the first Tuesday of every month driving a separate church bus downtown loaded with supplies like toilet paper, baby wipes, water bottles, flash lights, donated clothes, blankets and many other necessities to pass out to the homeless. I’ve been trying to go with them but I always had a conflict until Tuesday, December 3, 2019 which was ironically enough Giving Tuesday.
(I’ve changed the names to protect the individuals listed here.) Linda and her husband Sam were at the first stop. Linda was the sweetest lady thanking me over and over again for helping them. She started telling me that a local restaurant gives them their leftovers at the end of the night and that she has been organizing a group of the homeless to go to the U-Haul and other stores to collect blankets to pass out to the other homeless people in the area. She also said they are sleeping in a small shack behind a local establishment where they were told they could sleep, but it doesn’t have insulation or heat so she took a sleeping bag and blanket that we had on the bus.
Megan was at our next stop and she lives in a large camp area under a bridge with the most incredible view of the Indianapolis skyline, just past the river. Megan was telling us about how she went to the Speedway gas station and her friend asked her what happened to her hair, she was wearing a hat this night because it was very cold but also because she said she was embarrassed by how her hair looked. She took her hat off and showed us but all I saw was hair all pulled back into a small bun on the top of her head. She told us that her hair was really long and she doesn’t like it because she isn’t a girly girl. We started talking about how long hair gets in the way sometimes and guys have it so much better. Our discussions reminded me of a conversation I would have with one of my friends or a stranger in line at Starbucks but not a conversation I would expect to have with a homeless person. The thing is most of us think we have nothing in common with homeless people. We think they are strung out on drugs or alcohol and so they couldn’t possibly talk about everyday stuff. But, the reality is, most homeless people are just people. They have their own set of challenges, that in comparison to mine are much bigger, but in the end they are just people. Megan started telling us that she may have an opportunity to move into an apartment but that she really didn’t know what she was going to do. She has been living in this homeless camp for so long that she doesn’t think she wants to live that close to other people. She said, “I don’t know if I really like people that much.” She went on to say, “of course I like you guys, you are my family.” And the thing is it did seem like a family event that I was invited to be a part of. At each camp we pulled up to the guys on the bus had stories to tell me about the people I would be meeting and they would jump off of the bus with huge smiles, big hugs and fond greetings for their friends at the camp sites. In fact, one of the guys who helps lead this group every month, picked up one of the homeless guys and brought him to his home for Thanksgiving and the leaders’ 11 year old daughter, who was with us, told me that he came last year for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and he is supposed to come for Christmas this year too.
Of course, many of the stories were heart wrenching and I have to admit I cried a couple of times just from the entire experience. It was a cold night in the 30’s and many of the homeless individuals were looking for blankets and coats which we gladly passed out.
We went to about 5 camp sites throughout the night and each one had a different vibe similar to the different cultures you find in different offices. One camp site had a lot of females who were clearly in charge, some had a bunch of single men who were resourceful and had created some great shelters that even had locks, windows and carpet. And one camp site had individuals who seemed to have substance addictions or mental challenges. But I never felt unsafe, and at each camp site the homeless individuals were respectful, only took what they needed and thanked us multiple times for helping them.
Our bus only had the front row seats available because the rest of the seats were full of our supplies to pass out. We had 6 of us on the bus. We were followed by a pickup truck and we met up with about 4 other people including one homeless man who rides along with the other bus to help pass out food and hot chocolate. We were met at the first camp by a couple who followed the buses in their car and then a couple of other volunteers showed up at another one of the camps and followed us to the final camps to help as well.
The guys continued to share with me, as we were riding the bus, that many homeless have cats to help kill the rats (Megan showed Kevin one rat that her cat killed and it was huge.) And they have dogs to help protect them, we had cat and dog food available which many of the homeless asked for.
At one of the camps there was a man that everyone from our group was very fond of, we will call him Fred. Fred’s dog woke him up twice because his shelter was on fire. One time because his portable heater caught on fire, but just two weeks ago, because someone caught his shelter on fire. Luckily, he was able to get out ok but I saw his hands were black from soot and he was telling us that the rain jacket that he had gotten from the group burned up in the fire, we had another one on the bus so we gave it to him and his smile was huge.
I have so many more stories from the 4 and half hours of this one night that felt like I lived a lifetime in such a short time. Seeing the different emotions, gratitude, despair, and everything in between in the eyes of the people we were there to help. One lady walked up and I said, “Hi there, how are you?” and she responded, “I’m hungry.” I thought, I’m so sorry and it’s not fair. Another lady was afraid to come up to the bus but our group talked to her and convinced her to come over. She was crying and didn’t seem to want to take much. We loaded her up anyway. After she walked away I was told that she just found out that she has throat cancer and her boyfriend was abusing her. They went on to tell me that a few years ago this lady used to be at a different camp with her husband and six grandchildren so she would take food for 8 people. But, she was addicted to drugs and lost custody of her grandkids and is no longer with her husband. I can’t imagine facing cancer after losing everything and being homeless at the same time.
These stories and many more are why we have started A Tiny Act of Kindness and why we believe that transitional housing with programs and services provided to help the homeless get back on their feet is so important.