A few weeks ago I went on a Street Retreat – my first. I came home from work Friday afternoon, took off my blazer and heels, put on track pants and sneakers, and grabbed my backpack stuffed with a water bottle, change of clothes, my driver’s license, and a sheet. My yoga mat was strapped to the side. It turns out I don’t own a sleeping bag.
I walked out of my comfortable downtown condo and headed toward Zilker Park.
“Going to yoga?” our front desk attendant asked me.
“No. I’m going to live on the street for the weekend.”
“Oh, okay. Have a good time.” He was a bit thrown off.
So was I.
A few hundred yards away from our Zilker meet up spot I was stopped by a musician who wouldn’t tell me his name:
“It can be whatever you want it to be.” he said. He asked, knowingly, “Are you going on one of those street weekends?”
“Yes, I am. Do you have any advice for me?”
And then he recited a poem with a great deal of flair that I don’t remember. I listened intently until he stopped, grabbed my hand and said:
“You’ll be fine.”
That was unexpectedly comforting.
Even though it was October, it was hotter than I wanted it to be. When I arrived in the park and saw Alan and a group of similarly outfitted folks ahead, I was grateful to be where I belonged.
But just steps before I could join the group, I was stopped by two men plopped down under a tree, cracking and eating pecans. One man was quiet. The other was particularly chatty: “What is a pretty lady like you doing here?”
My shirt was wet with sweat. It was not pretty.
I said, “I’m spending the weekend with those people,” pointing to Alan and the group assembled. “Do you know them?”
“Yeah, they’re good. They’re trying to do good for people like me.”
He went on to tell me about how he had been a rocker, got messed up by life, and now is trying to survive. He wore a rosary and talked with a lot of words about God and Jesus Christ and how that’s all he really has left.
Eventually we both went on our way – my Street Retreat in full swing.
Our group left Zilker Park and walked to the downtown homeless shelter, the sidewalk littered with hopeless, homeless faces looking curiously upon us. I sat on the curb and talked with a man who showed me pictures of his apartment and talked about how he comes down here to pray for the people who don’t have an apartment like he does. I don’t think he has one either. Next to us on the same curb were three young men getting high. One of them asked if I had water – he drank all I had and returned the empty bottle.
We walked on, eventually making our way late in the evening to the parking lot of the University Methodist Church situated on the edge of the University of Texas campus. It turns out the parking lot was a popular spot – they serve breakfast on Saturday mornings and allow folks to spend Friday night just outside. We walked up, quickly greeted by a man who introduced himself and appeared to act as a kind of an innkeeper. He knew Alan.
“Do you have any cardboard? You’ll need cardboard under your sleeping bag so the cold ground doesn’t get to you as badly.”
“No, I don’t have cardboard,” I say.
“Well, follow me,” he said cheerily.
It was 11pm or so and he took a few of us to a cardboard-only dumpster – a real find if you’re in need of cardboard that doesn’t also have something else unpleasant stuck on it. Walking back he pointed out that the Student Union was open for another few hours. It had nice restrooms, and since we looked like we could be students, we probably wouldn’t get stopped going in.
He offered, “I’m the exception to the rule. I have a job and an education, but I have a lot of debt, and so I can’t get a home.”
I think his name was Terry – I’m embarrassed I can’t remember for sure. He was so kind to us.
We laid out our cardboard and established our spot for the night. I put mine next to Alan’s. Two other Mobile Loaves & Fishes staffers laid head to head opposite us. I unrolled my yoga mat, unfolded my sheet, rebranded my backpack as a lumpy pillow, tucked my shoes between me and Alan, praying they’d be there in the morning, and tried to get some rest.
There is no rest here, because sleeping on the sidewalk sucks.
Beyond the hard and cold discomfort of the sidewalk, the night was not restful because my body and mind and soul knew there was unrest around me. Strange sounds and outbursts, sirens, smoking, idle and ill chatter…it went on all night.
It was terrible.