the homeless man

A castaway in the sea was going down for the third time when he caught sight of a passing ship. Gathering his last strength, he waved frantically and called for help. Someone on board peered at him scornfully and shouted back, "Get a boat!” – Daniel Quinn

I grew up being told that the poor will always be among us. So, naturally, this is why things like government aid should be frowned upon because they’re thwarting what the Bible says should happen. It’s OK for churches to offer soup kitchens, etc., because God doesn’t mind that—but the government should stay out. This attitude—this hands in the air, no responsibility required because the Bible says it’s inevitable—never really set well with me.

Shortly after I moved to Colorado Springs in 2012, I pulled into my driveway and cautiously waited for a large, barreling black man to walk past my car. I could tell he was talking to himself, looking at the ground and perhaps walking in a drunken stupor. I couldn’t be sure. Since I was new to town, I waited until he was two houses past mine before getting out of my car. When I opened the door I was overwhelmed by the smell of his lingering body odor. I watched him continue down the street and thought:

He used to be someone’s baby boy. Some mother somewhere in the world delighted the day he was born. At least, I hope. There was a teacher somewhere who invested in his education. A cafeteria lady who likely tried to lift his spirits when he was frowning. He wasn’t always this way. He wasn’t always wearing overalls with the legs cut out like a dress. He didn’t always use a cardboard box to shield his calves from the winter wind.

This man is often sitting downtown with a blanket over his head. I presume he’s sleeping. When I walk by him and can’t smell him, I’m grateful that someone gave him a place to shower and even a little bit of his dignity back—likely a homeless shelter in town run by the Catholic church or a government program.

He’s not the first homeless person whose younger years have crossed my mind. In fact, everyone I see who’s demonstrably homeless, sleeping under a bridge, holding a sign for money—someone’s baby girl or boy. And I wonder: What am I supposed to do? I used to overwhelm myself emotionally because I wasn’t trying to ease their burdens. Should I keep packages of crackers in my car to hand out? Should I place a stack of sandwiches on the back of our fence for the drifters who come in and out the back pasture?

How often do I tell a sinking man to go get a boat?