I watched him through the wall of glass as I sat at the desk in the administration building of the men’s crisis center. There was a backdrop of sparsely littered trees, naked and shivering in the cold wind, and the sun was making a half-attempt to warm the surrounding concrete jungle and abandoned buildings. It was as if the sun gave up on this embarrassing piece of land because there isn’t a point anymore. This is the neighborhood that is conveniently left out of the vibrant-colored brochures showcasing the “must see” sights in Cleveland. Curiosity got the best of me because I could not understand why this man was walking with a bucket in his hand in the middle of a 30-degree morning.
He shuffled to the front door, placed his white bucket with a sealed top down, and proceeded to walk in the entrance hallway. He was a large man with a bloated belly, a few teeth missing, and was wearing dirty white sneakers that forgot to put on their laces that morning. He looked a bit like a disheveled kid with his jacket unzipped. I buzzed him in and as he entered I felt the wave of alcohol ripple through the air and it smacked me right in the nostrils. I welcomed him with a warm smile, “How may I help you?”
“Hi, Ma’am,” he politely said, “I’m just looking for a pair of warm pants.” I looked him in the eyes as the cold snot ran down his lip. I wondered how many people avoid making eye contact with him on a daily basis. All day long people avoiding this homeless man, as they nervously speed up their pace to pass by or over him. They play right into the rumor if you look a homeless person in the eyes they will steal your first born, or worse, your soul.
I gently explained to him the policies of our center, how we serve our clients staying in our shelter, and encouraged him to go next door to get a bed. I could see in his eyes that he probably wasn’t going that route and gave him a street card. It is a double-sided paper with a list of resources and phone numbers to the city’s services for those in crisis.
“Do you have a phone?” I asked. “No, ma’am,” he replied. I proceeded to give him directions to a church that happened to hand out clothing to those in need on that very day. A soft boozy “thank you” floated my way, and he walked out the door.
I can’t save this man. I know it. I can’t fix him in the 5 mins of human connection we just experienced, probably the only connection he will receive today. I do know one thing, I can be empathetic and that I’m certain. I’m not naive to the fact that he could very well be dangerous, but I can feel his pain. I know I can take a moment and pray for his alcohol addiction and for freedom from his bondage.
I encapsulate the pain he has caused his family. I can see the relationships he was supposed to be in charge of but he broke instead. I can envision his downward spiral to homelessness, left with a bucket and the clothes on his back. He didn’t have an ID and I didn’t even ask him his name. I can feel the empty love he probably received as a child. Sadly there could be a father he never knew and I see the hugs he never got to receive from him. I know the tumultuous love affair he has with alcohol and how it has robbed his self-worth and the integrity he once possessed. Maybe he served our country and saw the bloodshed of war. There is a possibility that mental illness has ravished his brain. Perhaps he witnessed abuse, was a victim of it or was the abuser himself. Maybe, just maybe, he chose this life and he doesn’t give a flying donkey. Although I would argue that because his voice was soft and full of thankful defeat.
I can imagine what it is like to surrender to your demons and leave your “man card” back in the alley of your last party. It takes guts to look someone in the eye, vulnerable to the esoteric, and ask for a pair of warm pants. He was too appreciative for me to believe he was living a life of intentional reckless abandon. No. He is a prisoner to his own vices. He and his lover, alcohol, have probably left a trail of destruction in their wake but who I am to push his head even deeper into the waves.
As I watched him sit on the bucket outside (ah that is why – he uses it as a mobile chair), and review the street card I gave him, the tears welled up in my eyes. The pain of realizing the bucket and booze were the last pieces grasping for purpose in this man’s life, was too much for my heart to handle. No, I can’t help him. His needs are far too great. But I can treat him like a human for a few mere minutes of my time. That I can do.
Until next time, be well, my friend.