He was standing by the dumpster in the early morning light, a tall man with matted hair and dirty clothes that smelled of urine. I could hardly believe my eyes. “Roger, I’m so glad to see you!” I cried, throwing my arms around his neck. “Where have you been?” It seemed like a resurrection.
Once a frequent guest at Catholic Charities, where I worked, Roger had suddenly dropped out of view. Months had passed, and I had heard he was dead. But here he was, dignified and genteel as he turned down my offer of coffee because he had “other things to do.”
Even now, years later, I can hardly express how happy I was to see Roger once again. Somehow, I had come to see beyond the dirty clothes, the smell, and even the mental illness. I had caught a glimpse of Roger as a real person created in God’s image. And perhaps part of my gratitude was because I learned so much through Roger and the other homeless people I was meeting.
Stereotypes Don’t Fit. Until I was in my mid-forties, I didn’t know a single homeless person. Then down-sizing claimed my job with AT&T, and as I prayed about the next step, I felt led to pursue an opening with Catholic Charities. To my surprise, I landed the job. Suddenly, I was Director of Emergency Services for people who were on the brink of homelessness.
On my first day of work, I closed my office door, got on my face, and begged God to go before me. I had never done anything like this before, and there was so much I didn’t know! But I kept praying, and God did the rest.
It didn’t take me long to see that these people were not a faceless mass—“the homeless”—but individuals who didn’t fit my stereotypes. In our shelter, we welcomed families, professional football players, and PhDs. Once, walking down the hallway, I looked into a room and was devastated to see a woman who had been my colleague for years at AT&T.
Often, I discovered, people began spiraling downward into homelessness after experiencing a big loss—a job, a divorce, a death. I remember one young man from a well off family; he was on the beach in an expensive sleeping bag. His fiancée had died, he said. “And you know what? I just didn’t have any reason to go on.”
In the shelter, I met James, a kind, soft-spoken man with beautiful brown eyes. He and his wife had raised four children, all of whom became professionals. But when his wife died, James’ life stopped too. All he wanted now was to do day labor and have a place to sleep at night. He was not mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol—he was just sad, so very sad.
Transformations. Homeless people are often homeless because they had no one to be Jesus to them in their time of crisis. As I spoke with them, I sensed that so many had a big, dark hole in their hearts. The “light of Jeanette” couldn’t fill it, I knew; the light of the Lord had to come into their lives. But I could play a part— not by preaching but by searching for God in the person I was talking to and by constantly asking Jesus how to love him or her. It meant being quiet, really listening, and responding as genuinely as possible.
This made a difference with a woman I’ll call Donna. She was a certified nursing assistant, a single mother who had moved to Florida with her children in order to take care of her grandmother. The grandmother died, and before Donna knew it, she and her children were living in the car. This wasn’t a safe place to be, but she was adamant that “I’m not going to live in a homeless shelter.”
Listening to Donna, I came to see that she wasn't refusing out of pride but out of fear. She was sure that in the shelter, she and her two daughters would be beaten, raped,and experience other terrible things. Through patient listening and honest answers, Donna's trust was gained and she was persuaded to relocate. Donna never regretted the move. Living in the shelter, she was able to regroup and rebuild her life; so did her daughters—one received a full scholarship to a Catholic high school, earned straight As, and became a foreign exchange student.
Miss Ellen. The most dramatic transformation I ever witnessed took place in a skinny, weathered woman who never wore shoes, talked to voices in her head, and slept outside near the shelter. "Why don't we give her a bed?" I demanded on one of my first days working there. "We're suppose to take care of people, and here's on sleeping in the dirt!"
Because someone took the time and trouble to be her advocate, Miss Ellen now has a decent quality of life.
“But Miss Ellen is a huge success story,” said another worker. I learned that people had been working for years to get this woman off the streets. She had been abused and robbed so often that it wasn’t easy to win her trust. Now at least, she trusted us enough to sleep right by our building. That was a huge step for Miss Ellen. But there was more to come.
Some time later, one of our staff put a pile of photos on my desk. It was Miss Ellen—all dressed up, with earrings on, and hair done. “What happened?” I asked. One of our case-workers had cared enough to keep working with Miss Ellen, patiently experimenting with medications and dosages to treat her mental illness.
I saw the results for myself when Miss Ellen walked into the office. In she came, with pearls around her neck, and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” It was the first time she had ever greeted me normally. Then she started telling me her story—how she had been institutionalized after her mother died, why she had hated baths and liked sleeping on the ground. . . . We’re having an actual conversation! I kept thinking, as she went on talking, smiling and animated. I was beside myself with joy.
Miss Ellen will always need medication and assistance of some kind. But because someone took the time and trouble to be her advocate, she now has a decent quality of life. As I watched her story unfold, I achieved something too—a deeper understanding of how to help people who are mentally ill and a new appreciation for the transforming power of love.
Take-Away for Life. I no longer work directly with people who are homeless, though I wouldn’t be surprised if God led me in that direction once again someday. But the lessons I learned from these “least” of Christ’s brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40) have stayed with me and affect the way I live.
Having seen how little they have, I’ve simplified my life. Together with my husband, I give more thought to almsgiving and have taught our children to do the same. And I’m more inclined to think the best of people rather than the worst, quicker to listen rather than to push my own agenda, and more attuned to God’s presence in each encounter.
In all these ways and more, as I was reaching out to others, God was reaching out to change my heart.
Jeanette Ghioto lives in Saint Johns, Florida. For her practical suggestions about the kind of assistance that really helps people in need, visit www.wau.org and see the resource article "Can You Spare a Dollar".