Walking down the narrow dirt path into the woods to the Tent City in downtown Louisville for the first time seriously had my heart racing. I wasn’t afraid but I was anxious because I didn’t know what to expect. With no food or supplies in hand to pass out, I felt a bit awkward at first. Charlie Blacketer from The Forgotten Outreach led the way, cautioning me to be respectful as he introduced me; making sure I asked before I took pictures and interviewed anyone.
As we got a bit deeper into the woods, Charlie hollered out that he was there and had company with him to let everyone know what to expect. Within seconds, men and women came down lone paths towards the front area of Tent City where a picnic table, bikes and a garbage area had been set up.
Every person that came forward welcomed Charlie with open arms, handshakes and jokes. The idea of seeing some of the homeless in Louisville had at first brought visions of all kinds of stereo-types to my head…making me wonder if I’d find tents filled with drunkards and people doing drugs. The Sunday night movie idea of a homeless character was far from what I found as I walked around, meeting the homeless who camped there.
Much to my surprise, many of the people I met were just like people I go to church with, run into at Wal-mart and live next door to; with a few exceptions. While I did smell the occasional scent of alcohol, what I found were semi-orderly campsites with clothes lines, camp fires, sleeping bags, chairs and backpacks. I was also warmly received. Each time I had the opportunity to speak with any of the men and women I met from Tent City, I was treated with respect.
Candid conversation, personal stories, tragic outcomes and humorous tales touched me as I went from person to person. Being escorted by a homeless woman in her late 40’s, I got a full tour of the wooded area. As I got to know her she shared with me that her addiction to drugs is what put her on the streets. From her addiction sprang forth a relationship with a violent man and she fled to a woman’s shelter to get help. Surprisingly, she said that her family didn’t know she was homeless. She’d just been on the streets for 2 months and had made a connection with someone at Tent City in that time period. Like me, she too was amazed at most of the people she’d met.
“I always had the idea that homeless people were half out of their mind and had no morals but I was wrong. I’m ashamed to admit that I used to go to church all the time and look down my nose at people who had drug problems and ended up on the streets too. I believe in God. I have 5 kids and every one of them are good people with families. I ended up getting involved with drugs after I was injured at work and started on pain meds.”
“It’s so easy to go from one drug to another and in about 13 months I found a man who got me on to cocaine. He beat me up but I stayed with him for awhile anyhow. I finally got out. I was in rehab for 4 months and of course I lost my job and have no home. I tried the shelter but it scared me there. Someone stole all my stuff and they make you leave during the day. When I found someone here at Tent City, they let me stay a day or two but that’s been a full month now and they’re looking out for me.”
As I found out from my interviews with both men and women, several of the groups or cliques of homeless are fairly protective of each other and take care of each other. There in Tent City at the time, 20 or so homeless people shared food, stories, first aid items, bikes and personal care items with each other as needed…working to take care of their brothers and sisters they could relate to.
Another vocal homeless character I met said that he’d been on the streets for years. He was a Veteran. Both he and his girlfriend had served in Dessert Storm as well as in Iraq. He wasn’t fond of ministries and “pushy church people”. Just a few weeks before my arrival at Tent City, a local church had come in during the day and ran-sacked the tents. As this Veteran told me, “They thought it was their God-given right and duty to come find out if anyone here had drugs or alcohol. They took stuff that didn’t belong to them. Some people had beer and they took it. Other people had magazines and they took those. That’s plain wrong. They tried to offer me food and I wouldn’t take it. They scream and yell at us that we’re going to hell because we’re homeless or because we drink. If that’s what they think God is like then I feel sorry for them. I’m no preacher but I don’t remember reading nothing in the Bible about Jesus stealing stuff or screaming at people because they were hurting or were different.”
Hardly a negative word was spoken to me about anyone or anything throughout the time I spent with the homeless in Louisville but those words hit my heart deeply as I thought about the stereo-types and the well-meaning yet harsh ways some people choose to minister to others….and it made me even more thankful to be there with a ministry like The Forgotten; where God’s love is shared and people are seen through the eyes of Christ rather than through judgment.
For more on my experiences with The Forgotten Outreach, continue to read my series on the “Homeless in Louisville”. Subscribe to this column by going to the top of the article and hitting ‘subscribe’.