For quite a while we had few visitors. When the temperatures are low most of those we serve are street savvy enough to find warm buildings to stay in until just before 7pm, the time the overnight shelter across the street from us opens. At 6:20 the number of visitors to our vans picked up. To all that wanted them we gave bags containing food, water, juice, and hand warmers. A few we outfitted with gloves or warm socks, but most already had as much winter clothing as they could carry with them. I saw a few familiar faces: a tall, very thin man suffering from AIDS; a woman who had been trafficked for all of her teen years; a short man who takes a bag from us and retreats quickly, never saying a word; several who struggle with alcohol addiction. Across the street a man waiting for the shelter was making strange noises that sounded in part like a crying baby and in part like an unhappy cat. We have seen him before and believe he suffers from significant mental illness, but he avoids us and there is little we can do to help him. As I read over what I have written, I worry that I leave the impression that all our visitors were strange and hopeless, which is not true. Many of tonight's visitors were simply poor folks who were grateful to get a bag of food and an article or two of warm clothing, and more than one had cheerful words of encouragement for us.
By 6:30 the cold was getting to several of the volunteers. (I still felt warm; I was the last to arrive and was dressed in many layers of winter clothing. I probably looked like the Michelin Man.) The small crowd of homeless waiting for shelter to open also looked to be shivering. One of us muttered a wish that they would open the shelter early so that the homeless could at least wait in warmth. Then, immediately after that comment (Really! I'm not exaggerating!), the shelter doors opened a half-hour early and we watched those waiting enter.
We started to pack up at 7pm when a young woman ran up to us and yelled "wait!" She looked to me to be in her mid teens, but, when Mike talked to her, she said she was 25. I still find that hard to believe. She was dressed in a large hooded sweatshirt. We tried to talk her into taking a warm coat, but she refused. She did gratefully accept a pair of gloves and a bag of food, however. Another man showed up as well and we gave him a bag of food and some extra hand warmers. When we left at ten after seven I was still warm, except for my feet, which, despite insulated boots and two pairs of thick socks--one wool and one thermal--felt like blocks of ice. In total we served about two dozen people.
My feet got cold tonight, and it was a bit unpleasant. For me, working with the street ministry is a chance to be helpful, and sometimes it feels a bit like an adventure. I know, however, that I can leave at anytime. I know that a few hours later I will be sitting at my computer in my study, warm and secure, typing up my journal of the evening's events. I will sleep tonight in my own bed under my own warm comforter. Others will not. They will have no security, only temporary warmth, and a bunk that is not their own in a room they will share with many others. This is the fourth winter I've been helping out with the street ministry, but the first really cold evening each year makes me introspective. It reminds me how unfair life can be and how much I have been given.
Please pray for, and care for, the poor.