Reverend Neil O’Farrell with a heartbreaking story of homelessness and those times when our help feels helpless.
Bloated. That’s how I felt coming home from a friends’ Thanksgiving dinner. I was looking for a little down time. Thanksgiving is not for introverts. So I logged into Facebook. That was when bloated gave way to heartbreak.
In a rambling conversation, a young man I’ll call PJ talked about his new homelessness. He must have signed on to his account using someone else’s phone or computer because it had been a while since he could afford subscribing to an internet service provider on his own.
I think I’ve seen most of the faces of homelessness, but now I’ve seen one in unstoppable motion.
PJ showed up in my office one day. He came into the outer office about the same time I did. Something about him told me I needed to invite him right then in to my study.
He had on a fast food restaurant uniform. His jersey was buttoned up to the very top button. I don’t know why that detail caught my attention, but during the next few weeks, most every time he and I saw each other, he was in uniform, and in particular, that top button was always buttoned. When I was his age—early 20s—I don’t think I would have noticed it if all the top buttons of my shirts had mysteriously vanished one day.
He needed help, he said. What he really needed was someone to listen to him, he continued. He didn’t have anyone else he could talk to. He asked me if I would judge him. I promised I would try not to. You can give me your best shot, I told him. He smiled.
He had two jobs at two fast food restaurant chains. He could survive if he worked eight shifts a week. He’d been cut back to three shifts per restaurant; the word was all hourly workers were being cut back so they wouldn’t qualify for health insurance.
I was struck by how he analyzed it all so precisely. That was something I’ve seen other needy people do. They know exactly what will keep them surviving, and how to fall off the sheer face of a cliff.
Having lost those necessary shifts meant he’d lost his car and was going to lose his apartment. He said it so matter of factly. He’d been so precise about everything else he’d said, and he had even buttoned that top button, after all—I knew he was telling me the exact truth.
I started shooting arrows into the dark. Did he have family? His mother, the only one who had stood by him and protected him, died of cancer a couple of years ago. There wasn’t anyone else. What about a girl friend? Yes, she lived with him, and she too had just been laid off. She was making sounds like she was going to break up with him and move back home.
Any chance he could find some other job altogether? He had a felony jail record, and most employers didn’t want to hire him. He was telling me so much about himself; I thought it would be almost voyeuristic of me to ask the details of a criminal past. I assumed it was something relatively prosaic, so I didn’t ask.
By that point, I felt both of us were boxed in. I understood his situation was serious, the future was stark, and there wasn’t much that would change the basic fact set for PJ.
He looked at the clock, saying he’d needed to be going to catch the bus for work. Since he worked half-way across town, I told him I’d take him. I listened to him some more so that he would understand he’d found someone who would care what happened to him. I gave him some money because there was no food in his apartment, and I took him to work. I told him to drop by and see me in a couple of days. I’d see what I could come up with.
I made calls to social service agencies, people I knew in government, the homeless community, and other urban pastors. I thought my nose would get a scab on it, so many brick walls I hit face first. I perhaps if I could throw a wad of money his way, that it would buy him some wiggle room to avoid the inevitable. I even asked colleagues for money, breaking an unwritten rule. I raided my discretionary cash box.
When he came back, I handed him $400. I realized it wasn’t very much, but the amount was the top of what I’d ever given to one person. When he sat in my office, he told me that he wouldn’t see me in this uniform again because both jobs had evaporated. The money I was handing him wasn’t going very far completely unemployed.
Over the next few weeks, he kept coming by, once or twice a week, to talk, to use the phone and my computer. He started showing up in civilian clothes. His girl friend had left him and moved back home.
He got his final eviction notice. I kept giving him a little money so he’d be able to eat, but it was clear I didn’t have the resources to solve his problems. Often we would just look at each other, not speaking. No false hopes allowed because they would be dishonest. I was praying as hard as I could for a reprieve, but I know enough about situations such as PJ’s that after a while, the train has leaves the station and nothing will bring it back.
The last time I saw him, he said he’d moved out. He had gotten notice about the actual day of his eviction. The day before, he boxed up most of his belongings that he couldn’t carry with him, and took them himself to the curb. He said that he couldn’t bear to watch the sheriff’s deputies go through his things.
He tidied the apartment, closed the door, and put his key handing on the door knob with a rubber band. Good men clean up after themselves even in dire straits. Then he walked away. He had been spending the nights on a friend’s couch, but he knew that couldn’t last much longer.
The Thanksgiving messages I read on Facebook closed the narrative circle for me. He was homeless. He’d eaten Thanksgiving with other homeless persons. He was on his own alone on the streets.
He is a good kid with some hard knocks, willing to work really hard. He took jobs most of us would have rejected. He had no family, few friends, no prospects, and a criminal record. He had me, but there was little more I could offer him but the promise to still listen.
I had tried to move heaven and earth to help him. Finally, I couldn’t do anything but marginally help around the edges. None of my fancy education and contacts had helped very much.
Like countless others like us—the would-be helpers and those needing to be helped—can often break through society’s social and economic walls to respond humanely to such a pedestrian need: food and shelter in exchange for work.
The holiday season in America, 2013.
–Photo: Deadly Sirius/Flickr