Three years ago, Swenny introduced me to a colleague of his who was providing meals to homeless people out of the trunk of her car. Since those early days, she has emerged as an expert on homelessness. Local leaders take her calls, news outlets seek to join her on nighttime outreach, and philanthropists provide needed support.
Most importantly, though, the homeless friends she serves trust her. Three times each week, she and a childhood friend pack two small busses with hot meals, lunches for later, blankets, tents, clothes, shoes, and toiletries to deliver to homeless camps across our city. They are known as Street Angels, and consider themselves hope dealers.
At each stop, they announce themselves with a signature beep, and wait for the friends to emerge. From under bridges and river banks, or from right before our eyes, they appear. Longtime friends are greeted by name ~ Annie, Don, Jose’ ~ and new friends are introduced. Along the way, the Street Angels share with ride-along volunteers about the special circumstances surrounding a camp or a friend.
For almost two years, I have been volunteering. I’ve helped mostly in the winter, when cold air keeps interactions brief. Necessities are given, help is offered, and away we go. Difficult circumstances are made more so by the brutal conditions for which the upper midwest is known, and you can sense the heaviness that is carried both inside and outside the bus. When the weather is warm, though, people linger. Moods are light.
In January, during the coldest winter I can remember, I met Jimmy. On that night, we pulled up and he and a friend greeted us. They accepted meals and other items, but refused transport to a shelter. Despite conditions that were life threatening, they insisted on remaining outside.
The other night, I had a chance to see where they spent that night, and where Jimmy spends every night. In the thick of an urban park, at the end of a dirt trail of easy turns, is a clearing. Toward the back is a shelter made to withstand most elements. Clothes lines tied to flanking trees hang above. At the other end is a fire pit edged by purple phlox on one side and chairs on the other. There sat Jimmy.
With no fire to look at, his gaze focused on the phlox. Jimmy welcomed us without getting up, and asked for introductions. In answer to the question of how he was, he said fine. “Still an alcoholic.” Punctuated with the lift of a can of beer.
In the background, from a speaker set in the branches of a tree played My Immortal. He looked over his shoulder at me and smiled. And I smiled back, recognizing before me a man who had surrendered to his disease. We visited a while longer before the lyrics followed us out…down the path and over a plyboard bridge to a tree line camouflaging the home now safely out of sight.
I’m so tired of being here
Suppressed by all my childish fears
And if you have to leave
I wish that you would just leave
‘Cause your presence still lingers here
And it won’t leave me alone.
By the time we reached the railroad tracks, the music was too faint to hear. So we continued to the sound of our steps on the gravel.
I’ve thought of Jimmy every day since…letting his presence linger in me. His face. His smile. His peace.