Orlando was cold—the coldest day since I moved here 27 years ago. I pulled my jacket around me as I headed into Lucky’s grocery store. I barely heard the raspy voice to my right: “Excuse me, Ma’am, could you help a homeless veteran?”
I turned, encountering a middle-aged man, clearly cold, with wind-burned face and eyes and a runny nose. “I’m cold, hungry and sick,” he said. “Can you help a little?”
His name was Jerry. He served three tours of desert duty, with injuries that now brought nerve damage, preventing him from doing his usual construction work. He had been jobless and homeless for several months.
I prayed with him and gave him a $20 bill. He looked at the bill, then at me, with tears streaming down his face. When I came out of the store, he had already been inside to buy some food. I handed him some meds for his cold and sore throat, with a cup of water. He cried again.
I love to help in such an encounter, but I leave in tears myself that I can’t do more.
Several years ago God opened my eyes and my heart to the homeless people all around. I read that the most common word they use about how it feels to be homeless is “invisible.” People turn away, avert their eyes, even cross the street to avoid encountering them.
He gave me a special assignment: “When you see a homeless person, seek to talk with them. Make them feel visible. Tell them your name and ask for theirs. Ask for their story, if they are willing to tell you. (They usually are.) Offer to pray for them, and give them a generous gift.”
So now I watch for my new friends. Right before I met Jerry, I ran into Juan. He was standing beside his car in a busy shopping center parking lot, holding the usual cardboard sign: “Homeless. Please help.”
Juan had a warm jacket and a decent-looking car. He didn’t look homeless, so I asked him about it. He pointed out his wife and five children in the car. He had lost his job several months earlier, and last month had lost their rental home. So the family was now living in the car. At least they had shelter. I prayed with him and gave him some money.
So you are probably thinking, “You just got scammed.” Maybe. People say that to me often. And I’m sure I have been occasionally. But God asked me to do this. The outcome is His. And I almost always sense that the person I am talking with is telling me a genuine story.
A few weeks before Jerry and Juan, I saw a young woman who was almost literally invisible, hiding behind a large sign holding her tiny cardboard sign. I parked across from where she was standing and asked her to come join me. Carrie and I talked for quite awhile and I learned how her mother had left with a boyfriend, and Carrie couldn’t pay the rent. She had been on the street for three months.
Yes, it was scary, she told me, but her dog made her feel safer. She had set up a tent behind Walmart. She thought she had found a job with a food truck, but it didn’t turn out. She showed me her little Bible in a plastic bag, which she reads every day. I prayed with her, gave her a $20 bill, and left with a promise to keep praying for her.
I am grateful that our city, in partnership with civic groups and many churches, is making significant efforts to address the large homeless issue. Those efforts will provide lasting help to those who have lost so much.
But I am also grateful that God has offered me the special opportunity to bring dignity to many homeless, one by one, as I encounter them on the street or standing by the roadside. As I say, “I see you.”
What about you? Can you see that homeless person?
C2018 Judy Douglass
He Got Up: Serving the Homeless in Central Florida