I didn't know until we moved to downtown Memphis that I could really love a homeless person. I had never seen homelessness up close. I had been annoyed by panhandlers, afraid of being followed, and resistant to engaging in conversation. It wasn't that I was aloof or felt myself above these folks. I was just scared. Intimidated. In the same way that you might be uncomfortable with the elderly or disabled; what do I say? What shouldn't I say? What if I can't understand them? What if they won't understand me?
And then God showed me Shawn.
Shawn is a big ol' black man. The first time I saw him, he had laid down on the backless park bench by the trolley stop in Court Square. It was perhaps 11pm; July, if I recall, and hot and miserable in that wet way that only Memphis can be. I looked down from my ninth floor apartment and saw him lying there in a light-colored shirt, his body flowing off the bench on both sides. "Oh," I thought, "poor man."
I saw Shawn for the second time sometime in the quiet middle-of-night hours that night. He slept, still, on the bench. I couldn't stop watching him. As the minutes ticked by, I began to wonder if I was watching over him.
The third time I saw Shawn was at 6am. I awoke, looked down from the window, and saw that he had shifted to a bench with a back and was sitting up as best he could. The downtown cops will let homeless folk stay overnight in the park as long as they keep their feet on the ground and don't lay down on the benches. Clearly someone had come along and asked Shawn to be more presentable.
"Talk to him."
I felt the impetus of my faith move me. Nervous, I awoke my husband and told him we were going down to talk to the homeless man. When we got to him, we discovered that Shawn had a difficult time speaking, not from drug use or intoxication, but simply from exhaustion. I had no idea what to say to him. I don't remember what I said to him.
I do remember asking how he got on the streets. He told me; I couldn't understand him. Something about his sister. I felt completely foolish asking him this question when he was clearly in so much immediate need: his shirt and sweat pants barely fit and were filthy; his left foot was encased in bandages which clearly needed to have been changed days ago; he was downcast. Besides, what business was it of mine what landed him on the street?
He was in trouble. How could we help? We went and got breakfast for him; McDonald's sausage biscuits and orange juice. We went and purchased a couple of nights for him at the local rescue mission. We went back to the park to take him to the mission.
He couldn't put his medical boot on--he was too big to reach it. As I knelt down to put his boot on his foot--a kind action I realized was probably a rare sight on the streets of Memphis--the homeless men sitting on the next bench down all leaned forward to watch what was happening. I wondered what they must be thinking, and then realized I had no idea whether we would anger them or whether they would think we were busybodies, or do-gooders. Mostly, I just felt stupid.
We finally helped Shawn lift his mass upward and slowly limp over to the car. I hadn't realized how large he really was until we tried to put him in our element, and had to push the seat all the way back, and then push the seat back nearly all the way back. I hopped in the backseat. All I could think was, 'I wonder how long it's been since he's been touched by another human?'
I reached out my hand to touch his shoulder. His smell filled the car.
When we reached the shelter, Shawn would not allow us to help him from the car. I couldn't tell whether he was embarrassed by our charity, wanted a fellow homeless man to assist him, or was too proud to let the white couple help him.
He stumbled in to the shelter with Dave tagging along behind, looking every bit the apprehensive middle-class white guy that he was. I sat in the car and watched any number of homeless guys roam up and down the street, and wondered what their lives were really like. I felt angry that they let this happen to them; I felt unsafe; I felt dejected at the loss of human potential.
I felt helpless in the face of the massive human catastrophe that is homelessness.