I hadn't been out with the Street Ministry since late March because of wife's illness and passing, so as I drove to the municipal parking lot across from the shelter I wondered what had changed in nearly eight months, and what was the same. To be honest, a day or two ago I had debated whether to go at all--perhaps, I thought, I should wait a few weeks longer. Everything fell into place in my schedule, however--my son and Grandma were both eager for an evening together--so I had a rare night free. Furthermore, while walking to work this morning Mike drove right past me in the street ministry van--he was giving JF a ride to his job--and I realized that I missed helping on Street Ministry nights and that it would do me good to go.
When I arrived a little after 5:30pm Mike was already parked in the lot with the van, and Jens was also there. It was a bit chilly--the temperature was in the low 20s--but there wasn't even a hint of wind, so it wasn't too bad. I chatted with Mike and Jens for a few minutes, and soon Cindy arrived and brought some very nice home-sewn mittens and other winter accessories. A bit later Kathy from St. James Trinity Lutheran Church in Fall Creek pulled into the parking lot, bringing four bags of winter clothing, and she stayed with us for a few minutes as well.
Our calm was broken when we heard shouting across the street just outside the door of the shelter. A budget cab had just dropped off a man. The man and the cab driver were loudly exchanging words. The cab driver exclaimed that he had searched his van (the cab was a van) twice and that it (whatever "it" was) wasn't in there. After a few minutes the cab driver got into his van and drove off. I could then see that the man had six or seven containers of stuff. One was a tall plastic laundry hamper, and others appeared to be bags or crates of various types. He was also carrying a stick--it looked like a broom handle from a distance--with which he was poking and prodding his possessions, I presume looking for whatever item he thought might have been left in the cab. Occasional he spoke loudly up into the air and waved the stick. (There were one or two others waiting outside the shelter, and they gave the man a wide berth.
We could see the potential for trouble. The shelter has storage compartments for its residents, but they are too small to hold all this man's bundles. The shelter usually allows only a certain amount of belongings per person to be taken in. The man was already angry, and, we suspected, was suffering from mental illness, so we were worried about him. Shortly thereafter two other homeless people crossed over to our side of Barstow street to talk with us. We asked the two about the man, but they didn't know him and had a similar take on the confrontation to ours. They did say that if it was his first visit, a shelter worker might allow him to keep more goods there for one night. We talked with and listened to the two men. A few others came over, and we handed out the usual water bottles, small bags of food (this time containing some a cereal bar, a juice pouch, some candy, and a bag of popcorn), and hand warmers, as well as gloves, hats, and scarves for those in need of them.
The slow trickle of visitors continued for the next hour or so. I saw some familiar faces--CT and JF among others, and many other faces new to me as well. JF looked good--I think he has lost some weight and he was in good spirits. He has a temporary job at a thrift store. Although it ends at the end of December, he is doing good work there and is hopeful that he will get switched to a permanent position. Mike has been driving him to work every day. JF had found housing and was off the street, but that relief was only temporary. He is back in the shelter but Mike is trying to get him into something more permanent soon. I am optimistic--JF really seems to have turned the corner and is close to escaping homelessness, I hope for good.
Alisa and Tom from Altoona United Methodist stopped by and dropped off more supplies. Jens, Mike, and I had things under control so Cindy left. We had a few more visitors. We distributed a few coats, hooded sweatshirts, and warm socks, although we were out of the larger sizes of coats and sweatshirts (2XL and 3XL) that many of the homeless prefer because they dress in many layers.
A car pull up next the van, and a woman came out and talked with Mike and thanked him for his earlier help. They talked quite a while, and the woman asked for a blanket. Fortunately, Cindy had dropped one off along with the mittens so we gave it to her. She was very grateful. There was another woman sitting in the front seat of the car with a glazed-over facial expression. The woman herself seemed fine, however. After she left, Mike told me that she had a heroin problem and that he had given her some clothing a few days before.
Around seven the shelter was letting people inside, and our stream of visitors disappeared. I was cold by then despite having dressed for the weather. We packed up the van and Mike, Jens, and I walked to the Acoustic Cafe. We each had a bowl of warm soup and discussed the day's events. Mike filled me in on the status of many of our regular visitors during my absence. Jens eventually had to leave, and a couple of minutes later Mike and I left, too, and walked back to the parking lot together. On our way, Mike got a text from Jens stating that man who had been in the cab was alone outside the shelter. We soon saw him on the opposite side of the street from us--moving away from the shelter toward downtown. He would move a few of his bundles about 30 feet, then set them down, and then go back and get the rest. At times he would also wave his stick around and talk angrily at empty space or loudly mutter complaints. We discussed what to do--we hated to leave him there but feared that approaching him in that state would only make matters worse. We decided to leave him alone, and I then went home for the evening. Mike later emailed me that he had returned to check on the man, but could not find him.
I'm glad I went out tonight. My months of absence from the ministry and our conversation in the cafe helped me to see that we were making a difference. I've long known that helping out with the street ministry has helped me to grow spiritually. I've also known that we make a lot of people's daily lives a little better with small things--a pair of gloves, a bottle of water, a ride, or by simply listening to their stories without judging them, criticizing them, or proselytizing them. Sometimes it's hard to see the long-term effects, but my long absence allowed me to see that we were helping people long-term--helping them find housing, helping them find and stay in jobs, helping them reunite with estranged family members, helping them break out of the vicious cycle of homelessness. Many people and organizations help the homeless in Eau Claire--through medical care, food, shelter, and clothing. All of these are needed, in fact much more of that type of help is needed. But we also need people to simply listen and to be a friend, a good, long-term friend to a homeless person.
It's been a rough summer for me. I lost my dear wife to cancer, but I learned the value of friends and support. I saw in that support a great contrast between my family's life and the life of many homeless people. When we were down, my church, my colleagues at work, my friends, my extended family, my wife's friends, my son's friends, and even people none of us knew came and helped us. Two of the homeless and formerly homeless people Plymouth Street Ministry has helped conveyed messages of sympathy and encouragement to me. We accepted much help and received even more offers of help. We had more dinners delivered than we knew what to do with. All that help was great, but even greater than the help itself was the knowledge that so many people cared about us. Sadly, many of the people on the street don't experience that. They are down but many have few friends and are estranged from their families. People they don't know look down upon them and judge them rather than flocking to help them. My wish is that everyone experiencing difficulties would have the support I had, and still have. Plymouth Street Ministry is trying, in a small way, to make that happen.
Please pray for, and care for, the poor.
PS If you would like to help out Plymouth Street Ministry, you can come out with us on Tuesdays or Fridays. Contact Mike for details. You can also help us with our material needs. Right now we especially need 2XL and larger winter coats and hooded sweatshirts, a pair of men's size 11 winter boots, a pair of men's size 9-1/2 winter boots, a pair of women's size 7 winter boots, bus tokens, gas cards for the van (we always need gas cards), ski-type gloves, and warm winter hats. Used items should be clean and in good condition.