Feeding the Homeless on the Streets of Seattle: Part 1
"For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for m. I was in prison, and you visited me" (Matt. 25:35-36).
Baby, it's cold outside
The frigid air bit into the flesh on my face, the only exposed part of my body. We were stomping our feet and exercising our arms to keep warm, enveloped in layers of clothing, hats, gloves, coats and scarves. The cobblestone square and walkways of Occidental Park were not yet slick with ice, and fortunately, no snow was in the immediate forecast. Light from the parking lot shone on the stark, bare trees in the middle of the square. The bronze firefighter sculptures were putting out an invisible fire in the distance fooling me; I thought they were real people in the distance. The famous totem poles rose into the night shadows with an eerie gloom. It was my first time ministering to the homeless with a group of church friends. We dubbed ourselves "The Sandwich Ministry." I didn't know what to expect on such a cold night. Surely there were places for these men and women to go when it got this cold - you know, missions and such. We probably would go home with lots of stuff we couldn't give away because no one was around.
We had found our spot just a few feet from the parking lot where the light shone on our set-up. Piles of coats, gloves, hats, socks (they really love socks), pants, and flannels lay on a tarp on the ground. We had boxes of sack lunches at the ready. But as I looked around, there was no activity except in the trendy, cozy little bar and grill nestled on the other side of the square. Within ten or fifteen minutes we saw their shadowy figures begin to make their way toward us. Soon our clothing pile was surrounded by very cold men and women sifting and trying on.
And then the square was filled with cheerful voices.
"Would you like a lunch?"
"Yeah, sure man. Thank you. God bless you."
"Ma'am, would you have any water? They turn the faucets off this time of year and I am diabetic, you know?"
"Oh, thank you ma'am, God bless you."
"Can I help you find anything? What are you needing?"
"Well, I really need a hat, and would it be okay if I got some socks too? Oh, oh, this is great. Thanks. Thank you so much. God bless you."
"This is fun," I thought. "They are so grateful. These homeless people aren't the rude, scary, and thankless people they are portrayed to be. I had no idea they could such happy people (at this point I was living on another planet). It felt good to hear genuine gratitude, and to see the joy and relief when they bit into a sandwich or put on a new coat or hat. "We are really making a difference," I thought. "They are warmer and have full bellies."
Our routine is to send our group out by two's into the surrounding area handing out sack lunches. I was too leery that first time, so I stayed and manned our little headquarters in the square. By 7:30 the lunches were gone, and only a few clothing items remained. We packed it in, got into our warm cars, headed to our warm homes with full cupboards, and rejoiced that we'd helped some needy people.
The Mission with a heart and a clean restroom
The next Sandwich Ministry trip to Occidental Park was mid-spring. We set up in our usual place. There were some new faces in our merry band, so there was a lot of excitement in the air, but also a little apprehension. The evening was chilly (it is Seattle, you know), so we had on coats, but had left our gloves and hats and boots at home.
I chose once again to stay at our tiny HQ in the square to man the clothing and chat with our visitors. A new gal named Kristi stayed with me and we began our ministering. We had some great conversations with our friends on the streets, and heard their stories about the difficulties of getting into the shelters and always being run off. There was some happy chatter as well. And like that last time, our evening was filled with "Thank you's" and "God bless you's."
Soon our teams came back from the byways of the Pioneer district where Occidental Park resides. They reloaded on lunch sacks and made ready to go back out. Kristi and I really had to find a restroom, so a couple said they'd man HQ till we found somewhere. "Good luck, there's nothing out there," everyone said.
They were right. We headed across the square to the trendy, cozy, little bar and grill to use their powder room. Long before we got close, two finely dressed employees met us and said sharply and scowling, "You cannot use the bathrooms here." Kristi explained, "We're from that church group over there and everything is closed. We'll just be a minute." Their reply was "Sorry, absolutely not."
We wandered around a bit looking for an open business but found nothing. Then we saw it - a lit up, dingy, two story, brick, building with a sign reading, 'Bread of Life Mission.' The sign over the entrance said 'The Mission with a Heart.' As we entered we saw the small sanctuary filled with hungry, tired men waiting impatiently for something (perhaps a sermon) to start and end so they could eat and sleep. The mission guy had the love of Jesus in his eyes and very graciously let us use the tiny, and I do mean tiny, bathroom. They had others, but this was close to the entrance. Tiny as it was, it was the most sparkling, tidy restroom I'd ever seen. I was touched that they went out of their way to keep the restrooms so clean for their guests. Of course it is necessary for health and sanitation, but many places don't make that much effort. Unlikely as it may seem, the Spirit was there in that tiny restroom. As we made our way back we realized the mission was only a block and a half from HQ. We made a mental note for next time. We were so grateful.
Trauma and despair
Would you be willing to feed the homeless in some way?
Entering the darkness
After our detour to the mission, Rebecca asked me if I'd partner with her and do another run on the streets. Kristi and another couple bid us adieu and we went out into the night. Rebecca walked with a purpose; she knew where she was going. We arrived at a dark, closed up, windowless building, at least I didn't see any windows, and there were lots of people milling around. I felt tension in the air. We handed out lunches, or rather they were snatched out of our hands. We heard a few grumbled thank you's, but no one made eye contact or responded to our efforts to be friendly. I was very uneasy. I wondered why these folks didn't come to the square at our little HQ? It wasn't that far. I looked to Rebecca who seemed fairly unconcerned, cheerful, but did not seek out and linger for conversation. She had done this before, many times it seemed. These folks weren't looking for our kind of friendship. I remained tentative, but relaxed a wee bit.
I spotted a middle aged woman a few feet away. She was bundled up tight, standing stalwartly there in the middle of the fray. Though her eyes were clear, they were staring off into a haunting nowhere. She was physically present, but her soul was detached, dissociated - off somewhere one mentally goes when they need a place to separate from trauma and pain. Her mouth was in a slight, tight frown. There was a tiny rivulet coming out of one nostril. "Would you like a sandwich?" I asked. No response, no awareness. She stood wooden, hollow, gone. Perhaps she was on a drug, but I didn't think so. No doubt she had seen horrors on the streets; that she'd been used, abused, violated and traumatized, and if my guess was right, probably that night. I knew that state of being as one who'd also been through a horrific trauma. "Hello darkness my old friend," I thought. "I remember when you hid me and kept me safe until I could trust again." This woman's pain was bringing up a lot for me.
I put the lunch in her hands and asked feebly if she wanted some socks. I guess I hoped to nudge a spark, even an infinitesimal spark of awareness, life, hope, something. I said nothing more, she could not bear it. I felt her despair and I could not bear it.
As I walked away I saw a young woman who was full of energy, cheeriness, and laughter. I realized within seconds that she was probably mentally challenged. I fell in love with her instantly, but wondered at the stark contrast of her joy to the dark, sinister, illicit environment she was in. I gave her a lunch with a cheerful greeting. Considering the atmosphere, it felt something like swearing in church, only the opposite. My cheerful greeting sounded grossly out of place. She took the lunch and cooed with excitement. Suddenly, a gruff and angry guy came over and aggressively snatched it out of her hand. "That's mine. You don't get none, hear?" He already had one lunch, he didn't need another. She didn't bat an eyelash, didn't hesitate at all. She just returned to her frilly, rilly chatter. I was absolutely incensed. I reached into my cloth bag for another lunch. Empty. Rebecca was empty too.
"Rebecca, did you see what that guy did? How dare he! We need to get her a lunch."
"These were the last. There are no more. There's nothing we can do."
"But...but, he can't do that." I was ready to charge him like a bull, but used every ounce of restraint knowing where I was.
"Lori, this is the streets. We can't change it all."
Although there was more happy conversation on the car ride home, on the inside I felt dark, brooding, and really ticked off.
Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.
More Related Hubs by Lambservant
- Feeding the Homeless on the Streets of Seattle: Part 2
Like most big cities, Seattle has a large population of men and women with nowhere to call home. This is the 2nd part of my story of feeding the homeless with our little band, The Sandwich Ministry.
- A Lesson in Giving to the Homeless
Three young boys jump at an opportunity to feed a homeless man which set the stage for them to become generous men.
- True and Genuine Religion
What is pure and genuine religion? James give us the answer.
© 2013 Lori Colbo