‘Twas the night after Christmas, and all through the house . . .
Actually, there was no house—which was the entire point.
Jeff and I had volunteered to spend the evening of December 26 staffing an Outer Banks homeless shelter, hosted this week by our church. We’d felt a little unmoored ourselves this Christmas, with all our parents gone now and no family members close by. Fortunately, some dear friends took us in for Christmas day, and we had a grand time.
But what if we’d had no house and nowhere at all to go? The least we could do, we figured, was to take a shift helping to give sanctuary to folks for whom this is reality. As the evening approached I started thinking: There are plenty of online blogs about sports and political events. What if I were to keep a loose record of what was said at the homeless shelter one night? Folks should know what it’s like, I thought. Not scary, not at all. Sometimes it’s even enjoyable.
People at homeless programs across the country insist that the homeless are just like you and me, only without shelter. That might be a bit of a stretch, since many street people are mentally ill. Once I had a long conversation with a homeless guest who claimed she was an elf. Another time a woman insisted that her brother and his friends had a business making dead bodies disappear. Are people like this lucid or hallucinating? It doesn’t matter. They are human, with an immense capacity for love.
So into the homeless shelter I headed Monday night, with a big pot of beef stew and a notebook.
We were in the large kitchen, heating the stew, when that evening’s guests entered the parish hall. Without saying much, they placed their belongings next to their beds—mattresses on the floor. One pleasant-looking man in a fleece pullover and a ball cap walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to retrieve a soda. He turned to me and introduced himself. I shook his hand and asked how he was doing.
“Great,” he replied with a smile.
A second man wearing shorts and a basketball jersey began helping Jeff put out the food. “I’m Jan,” I said. “How are you doing?”
“Great,” he said, sounding absolutely sincere.
This was not what I’d expected from men who were homeless at Christmastime.
The fellow in the basketball jersey told us about how, in October, he’d been trapped alone inside his trailer by the flood from Hurricane Matthew. The current had been too strong for him to get to high ground. He’d spent the storm lying across the back of his sofa, the only dry place in his home. Compared to that, yes, today he was doing well.
There were seven guests, six men and a woman. We said a blessing and sat down to eat. I overheard the woman saying she’d gone back to her little travel trailer that afternoon—it was in a storage lot, having been badly damaged by vandals—and discovered that someone had stolen the propane tank.
At the other table, I could hear Jeff and several men telling funny stories about skiing. Conversation at our table was slower. We concentrated on our food. Finally the man to my right volunteered that he had a job as a painter but had been laid off until January. The man next to him said he was working in construction. “Homeless” does not always equal “unemployed,” especially in communities like ours, where rising rents have so badly outstripped local wages.
The construction worker asked if I was a stay-at-home mom. Nope, I said, a writer. I told him my first book had been about the Outer Banks—how people are drawn here and find they can’t leave.
“You got that right,” he said. “There’s no place like this.”
“The fishing, and the beaches,” he said, “I could say I’m from Virginia Beach, and nobody would bat an eye. But tell them you’re from here, and—Everybody knows this place. People love it.”
The woman nodded. “We’re all here, aren’t we?”
It’s having the water all around, someone else said. But it’s gotten so crowded, another person complained. It’s not the same as it used to be.
I’d had this same conversation countless times at dinner parties.
And—that was it. We finished eating, we cleaned up. At 7:30 two men went off to play gin rummy and watch a football game. Two others started trying to fix a glitch on a computer. One man hit the sack, and the sixth went into the bathroom, where he talked loudly on his cell phone for a very long time. The woman sat pensively on her bed.
Jeff and I settled down to do what the homeless do every day, every night: wait for time to pass. Jeff went in with the others to watch the football game. I took out a blank piece of paper and wondered what to write down. The only thing left for me to blog about was my own line of thought.
Here’s what went through my mind: On our drive over to the church, Jeff and I had passed several hundred vacation houses, all shuttered and empty. Meanwhile men, women, and children sleep in cars, in the woods, or in our tiny homeless facility.
I thought of the millions of people displaced by war and poverty. I thought of the billion-plus who are hungry. I felt, in rapid succession, powerless, and angry, and deeply sad. I felt like a failure for not being able to solve a single one of the world’s problems, to not even make a small dent. And then my mind circled back to what I’d told a friend a few weeks before Christmas:
The most I can do is to stay alert for opportunities to help others, and to act on them. That, and to try to love everyone as purely and gracefully as I can.
The night passed. I slept well on my mattress, in a big room with seven people I didn’t know.
Up and around early, before we turned on the lights, I was startled by a “Good morning” from a dark corner. It was the painter, the first guest awake. He asked how I’d slept, and I asked him.
He shook his head. “I don’t sleep,” he said. “I’ve got something wrong with my ear. And insomnia.” He gave a pained grin. “Sleep isn’t for me.”
“That’s tough, not sleeping,” I said. “It makes everything worse.” But he didn’t seem sad, so we lingered for a few moments in companionable silence.
I asked what he would do that day.
“Go to Urgent Care, for sure, to get my ear checked,” he said. With businesses reopening after the holidays, life would be a little easier for the homeless. They could go to the local rec center and shower. They could hang out in the library, maybe get some exercise at the Y.
We set about helping a church volunteer cook breakfast. Counting out the needed plates, I remembered something from the previous afternoon. As I had cut up the vegetables for the stew, a prayer had come to mind: May the people who eat this be happy. May they be healthy. May they be free from danger. May they live in peace. Now that I had shared a little time with them, my prayer became much fuller. The painter, the man from Hatteras, the woman, and the others: In my mind I saw each of their faces. May they be well. May we all.