A Night with the Homeless

A sleepless night at a homeless shelter becomes a wake-up call for this volunteer.

1:25 a.m.

I am getting out of the shower, but I feel so tired I want to go back to bed. Why did I volunteer for this? I think of how Jesus came back from the garden at Gethsemane and found the three apostles asleep: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41).

1:39 a.m.

The sky is so clear. There seem to be more stars than usual. You have to get up at a very strange time to see this kind of beauty.

1:40 a.m.

I’m in my car for the 10-minute drive to the church, thinking about what I am going to do this night. I think about the corporal works of mercy. Which one is this? Oh, yeah: “Shelter the homeless.”

1:45 a.m.

I walk into the activities center. Cleo and Chris are there. My teammate, Nancy, and I will replace them at 2 a.m. A man named Gerald sits with them at a table. He must have insomnia. They are talking. Well, he is doing most of the talking, and they are listening. His two sons are in classroom 4, sleeping. I catch bits and pieces of the discussion: He walks with the help of a cane; he has a bullet lodged in his back near his spine; he was a security officer, but something had gone wrong one night; now he produces rap and other types of music for a church group. I think that it must be very difficult to raise two boys when you have no home to go to and they have to sleep in a different place each night. How do they get to school? Do they even go to school?

2:00 a.m.

I talk with Nancy for a while; there’s nothing else to do. We go through the usual: kids, jobs, spouses, religion. While we talk, we hear the occasional cough from one of the rooms down the hall. Not everyone is having a restful sleep.

We discuss a feeling we share because of the circumstances of this night. We live in one of the richest countries in the world. Yet right outside our door the homeless and poor are sleeping. We feel thankful to God for our life situation. His grace alone has kept us from being in the same spot as the ones we care for tonight.

We feel guilty, however, for the same reason. There was absolutely nothing we did to deserve it. We are no more special to God than those sleeping on the floor in the classrooms. Why did he choose us to be the lucky ones? I remember the beatitudes from Mass a few weeks ago. Wait a minute, I think. They are the lucky ones! Blessed are the poor (in spirit) and the meek—they shall inherit the earth. I am not sure I would like to be as lucky as they are. I ponder that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s values are not our values. I pray that I can think more like God and value more of the things he values. I still have a lot to learn.

3:00 a.m.

Nancy brought some paperwork from home. She is working on it when we hear a commotion down the hall. I go to investigate. One classroom door is open. The card on the wall says there are two women inside. All is quiet there. I notice a dull light by the electrical outlet below the chalkboard where a cell phone is charging. As I walk back to our room, I hear the faint noise of music coming from another room: Someone is listening to tunes. I wonder how well I would sleep each night if I had to live like this. Probably not well—not well at all.

4:00 a.m.

I go to the kitchen and eat some cherry pie they left for us. It’s cold, but I don’t think to put it in the microwave. I find my wife’s name, Peggy, on the sign-in sheet. She baked five meat loaves earlier today for their supper. She makes great meat loaf, so they ate well today. I think to myself, The homeless were very lucky at dinner.

4:20 a.m.

More coughing comes from one of the rooms. A man comes down the hall and goes out the door. He smokes a cigarette. That is the second time for him since I got here.

4:45 a.m.

I make the rounds again. No trouble. I go outside to look at the stars a second time.

5:00 a.m.

I make my first wake-up call to two men in classroom 10. It’s still dark outside. They both have jobs. I always thought the homeless did not have jobs. If they had a job, why would they be homeless? I guess having a job does not mean you can afford a roof over your head. Tonight that seems like an injustice to me. People with jobs deserve a place they can call their own to sleep at night. I have one; why shouldn’t they?

Is that why some people are trying to raise the minimum wage? I always supported the free-market capitalist economy: Let the efficient labor market decide how much people get paid. Is that right? Is that just? I’m not so sure now, spending this night with the homeless.

5:30 a.m.

We are waking up more people now—a family with three little children. Are they going to school today? How will they get there? After school they won’t go home to a snack. I tear up at the thought. Why can’t I fix this? That is what I do at work: I fix problems. Here I don’t know how to do it.

5:45 a.m.

A small boy is crying in the hall. He can’t be more than 3 or 4. Daniel, who got up earlier, is a tall, older man with a noticeable limp. He says, “Hi, little one!” and holds the boy’s hand as they walk off. I am struck by the stark contrast between the two. Daniel: so tall, old, so wise. The boy: so small, young, reaching up so high to clasp the old man’s extended hand.

A woman stands outside the door to the building entrance. She wears a business suit. She must have a good job, so why is she here? Later we see her in the kitchen reading a business book. One of the two volunteers asks her if she is a teacher. She blushes a bit. I chime in that she looks like a businesswoman. She is going to an interview for a marketing job. She tells us the book is from an online course she is taking to earn her degree. I pray in my heart to the Father that she gets the job. Who would think she was homeless? She looks as if she could walk into my office and run one of my meetings.

This group acts like a family—like my family. They know each other. They are concerned for one another. The family: I think it is part of the natural law. It’s planted in our hearts by God. We don’t have to learn what a family is; it just forms naturally. It just is. I see the proof right here. I feel good thinking that here is a family—though it is different in many ways than mine.

I learned something tonight. As I make my way around town, buy my groceries, go to the restaurant or the coffee shop, I am likely coming in contact with people just like these: people who have no home, but are trying to make a better life for themselves. They are a family, just like mine. They are part of my family, and I bear a responsibility for taking care of them. Jesus said that love is acts, that you have to do something when you love. I need to make more acts of love for my extended family—the poor, the weak, the sick. I can do this.

6:05 a.m.

Less than an hour to go. I feel as if I am in the way as they go about their business, washing in the sinks, getting their coffee and breakfast. Lunch bags are on a table at the exit for them to take as they leave. Volunteers will drive some to work. Others will simply walk away for the day. I have a car—maybe I can take someone somewhere when I leave. I’d like to help.

6:30 a.m.

I’ve finished my wake-up calls, so I get to go home early. I’ll sleep for a couple of hours, then go in to work. As I turn into my subdivision, I see a full moon nearing the western horizon; the sun is soon to rise in the east. The moon is so big and bright, it reminds me of God’s love, so big and so bright. He will make all things right in the end. That thought brings me much peace.

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