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the scent of homelessness

In April of 2020, I resigned from my job in homeless services. My new career as a pastor has been wonderful, amazing and had its own challenges.  As I’ve settled into my new job and our new church location, I’ve been far from the downtown haunt that I once regularly traveled and far from engaging directly with our city’s homeless neighbors.

For the past two days, during the operation of pop-up, emergency shelter for persons experiencing homelessness in Wilmington, NC (now branded The Warming Shelter), I was reminded of my former role – all the emotions, frustrations and elations of working to serve persons experiencing homelessness returned. 

Yesterday morning as I readied the shelter for breakfast, it felt familiar (and appropriate) to yell at Max who continued to distract and razz me as I tried to keep up on the coffee pot for 40 slightly grumpy and sleepy-eyed folks who were not looking forward to stepping out into the cold sunshine. It was sweet to see Mike, but sad to recognize that familiar condition – how long-term drug-use has taken its toll. I gave God thanks that Mr. G is still alive, but I know he’s closer to death because of his chronic alcoholism – and how thin he’s become. And wondered why Jordan is still homeless… he seems so capable, kind and “normal.” I was glad that some of my former clients were absent from the shelter and happy to hear updates of how they had found a place to live or reunited with family (amen, amen). The familiar friends and faces were a bittersweet reunion – a homecoming of sorts.

And the new faces… the new faces… the new faces. So many unfamiliar and needy faces – scared faces, downtrodden faces. 

In our temporary shelter, there was kindness to be found in handing someone an extra blanket, setting up our buffet so that folks could serve themselves rather than “being fed” and joy in mini Moon Pies, a Coca-cola and the chance to sit and watch a movie from start to finish – warm, uninterrupted and safe.

I write this blog at exactly 1:51am because at 12:52am my phone rang and a woman named Edie was standing at the door to Trinity UMC wondering why The Warming Shelter was closed (temperatures have returned to the 40’s overnight). In her message she asked if there was anywhere she could go. Impossible to return to sleep when the old, familiar feelings of concern, care and curiosity of the homeless services caseworker immediately flooded my mind, emotions and body. With fresh coffee made at 1:30am, I found myself returning to a space of reflective prayer, wonder and lament where writing serves as a healing balm. “God, hear our prayers for our homeless community of Wilmington.”

I realize there are no easy answers. For two years I’ve been spared the deep sadness and emotion of homeless work as I’ve been working with the recovery community. Don’t get me wrong, there have been tragedies at Hope Recovery: overdoses, death, disappearing friends, people lost to darkness – it’s the way of the land in recovery. Working in a new field and in a different part of town, many of my homeless neighbors have been out of sight. 

This week, I was again reminded how homelessness work feels.

The desporation, the decompensation, the need for many solutions with scant resources… the trauma that brings people to where they are: dirty, drunk, drugged, dishonest, desporate, disrespectful – our very present and real disappearing faces who walk and live on our streets, who are overlooked, ignored and hoped to just go away. That nagging question of, “how did you wind up here? Why are you still out here?”  The heavy feeling of hopelessness that hangs in the air and smells like dirt, body odor and urine. The attempt to ignore the reality of the situation – to make light of anything to avoid the confession that you just don’t know how to really help. 

Dealing with our own feelings of insecurities, inadequacies, smallness and powerlessness when facing the hugeness of the issue. The lure to give up on the bigger problem and just go home, shut the door, eat Trader Joe’s ice cream and climb under a wam comforter with your dog beside you and thank God with a quiet gratitude, “at least all is well in my world.” The struggle to find harmony between two worlds that clash with so much dissonance. The way your work calls you back day after day with the determination to just do something to help facilitate change and somehow you find the energy to just not give up yet. 

It’s been a long time since I had the scent of homelessness in my nose (and my car) – a scent that captures God’s heart from the most marginalized – earthy as our fellow created-creatures and wanting of such simple basic needs: soap and hot water, warm food and shelter. It’s a scent one quickly grows to tolerate… and then a smell one loves in the strangest of ways. 

My confession: I actually resented being asked to help with The Warming Shelter this year, but yesterday, as I dropped a woman off at our local homeless shelter I felt grateful. Here was a senior lady who had shown up at our shelter on Tuesday night, just off a Greyhound from Jacksonville with nowhere to go. On Wednesday morning, as I chatted with her, I put my “case-manager hat” back on and was compelled to reach out to my peers for help. Within an hour (literally), we discovered she met criteria for a housing placement and our local shelter provided the resources for her to access the housing. We made a plan to transport and move her in that same afternoon. Last night she slept in her own bed in a safe and warm home. 

Yesterday, I told God that if I was taken in my sleep that very evening… it would be enough. That I had done good for this day. WE had made a small difference.

My request to you this morning is a personal and pastoral call for reflection today.

This week, I was reminded that in order to do my work well, I need to “touch” our neighbors. I implore all of us to get face-to-face with someone experiencing homelessness. Buy them a cup of coffee – simply ask them, “where did you grow up?” and listen to their story. Look deeply into their eyes beneath all their “noise” and see the humanity of our brothers and sisters. Foster hopelessness into the “hopes” in which we individually and collectively have access and power to. We can work together toward change, empowerment and bring our skills and creativity to the possibility to break cycles of homelessness – to help those who are in need. May it be so.

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