There’s probably not a reader out there in cyber world who hasn’t passed someone on the streets holding up a sign that says “homeless, need help” or “will work for food”. On occasion you may see someone stop and give that sign-holder a bottle of water or a bit of cash but rarely do you see anyone offer him or her a ride. Do you ever wonder if that person would actually accept a ride somewhere or accept a job if you did stop and offer it?
Most often, many Christians I speak with admit to saying a quick prayer for a homeless person as they nonchalantly sip on their gourmet coffee and zip on by; the image of the sign-holder soon pushed out of their relative consciousness as they go on with their busy day. Not so for those who have a heart to reach the homeless.
I had the opportunity this summer to find such a group of people here in Kentucky…the kind of people that God nailed to the wall with conviction over reaching the dirty, tired, unemployed, scared, drunken, sometimes mentally ill, stereo-typed, intelligent, resourceful homeless people… many of whom truly are ‘the forgotten’.
Bright and early every Friday morning, members of The Forgotten ministry pack up a van with food donated by local area churches, along with coolers of cold bottled water. Sometimes no food is available so they dig into their pockets or take the few donations they have and head to a local McDonalds in downtown Louisville to stock up on bags of double-cheeseburgers.
If you work or live in Louisville, you probably aren’t much aware of it but the homeless are very aware of the ugly green van heading their way. By now, after years of ministering to the homeless, this scruffy looking group of people is well known. I marveled as we drove into Louisville, on a 96 degree day…and where I saw seemingly no one, people gradually emerged. As soon as the Van came into view of the homeless down town, they started following the Van. At one point we parked in front of the Louisville Public library. There was no one around but then, the day was extremely hot. It was one of those days this past summer with a heat advisory….
Charlie Blacketer, Outreach Minister at Tyrone Baptist Church in Anderson County Kentucky and a lead Outreach person with The Forgotten, told the small handful of volunteers to stay put. I watched as he went into the library. Gradually men came out, one by one and then two by two and many more to follow. He was like the pied piper. Without saying a word, he was recognized as the man with the van. We passed out containers of food, cookies and cold bottled water. Every man and woman was gracious and thankful.
Moving further down the road towards the riverfront we stopped along the side of the road right by the woods. It looked like the woods with dense vines and brush masking most of the bottom portions of the trees…until you pushed back just enough brush to see a path headed into the woods. Charlie took me with him. Into what is referred to as Tent City.
There in the midst of the woods was a highly organized system of paths. Each path led to a different camp; a different tented off area. Most areas had clothes lines, a fire-pit, tents, tarps, sleeping bags…a typical campsite. With 20 or so people living in the Tent City I worked to warm up to a few so I could ask questions. While some are shy and prefer their privacy, most were welcoming and talkative as well as open about their lives.
The National Coalition for the Homeless states that one quarter of all homeless are veterans. That means around 170,000 homeless people today in the U.S. are veterans. That statistic proved accurate as I spoke with the homeless I met that day. Just over one quarter were veterans…men and women.
When I asked one of the men how long he’d been homeless he laughed and said, “I’ve been out on the streets and in the woods living around here for 22 years now. You call me homeless but I just live without a typical shelter over my head. Louisville is my home.” This same man rides his bike and does odd jobs for businesses up and down the streets in Louisville, content to live the life he has; mainly supporting himself on bits and pieces of income from gaining a solid reputation downtown and staying away from the areas he knows attract what he called the ‘criminal homeless’. (those hiding out from the law, dealing drugs, drinking and staying drunk..)
A typical American stereo-type of a homeless person is not what I witnessed this past summer and is not what The Forgotten typically ministers to. Yes, there are those ‘criminal homeless’ and there are those who need mental health intervention but there are also those who ask for nothing, take little from others and look out for each other on the streets.
I met vocal characters, quiet men and women, proud veterans and even a young couple searching for themselves and a path to their future by living amongst the homeless and writing a book about their many experiences. I also saw the humbleness in the eyes of those being served by The Forgotten ministry and in the eyes of those serving…taking care of their brothers and sisters with no judgments and no expectations for anything in return.
(To subscribe to this column, go to the top and hit “subscribe”. No spam, no junk mail, just updates every time this columnist posts an article…Including the continuing series on the “Homeless in Louisville”.)