Sleeping on the Sidewalk Sucks.
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.
“I only have this power for tonight,” he said rapidly, “Close your eyes and give me your hand. Can you feel it? Can you feel it tingling in your hands and up your arms and in your belly? Can you feel it going through the top of your head? Open your eyes. How was it? How did that feel? Did you feel it?”
“It felt awesome, man” Alan said.
Then Adam turned to me and took my hand, repeating the same script, wanting to ensure that I felt the Holy Spirit and concerned that as the sun rose, he would lose his power.
Adam joined us in the 7-Eleven, and Alan offered to buy him anything he wanted. We were a ministry of abundance, he said. Whatever he wanted.
Adam wanted Gatorade, Bluebell vanilla ice cream, and a pack of cigarettes.
He bought me a cup of coffee and a banana.
Adam walked back with us to the parking lot where we all spent the next several hours talking with the folks who had arrived throughout the night. Our conversations were punctuated by Adam’s interruptions and recitation of his script. The Holy Spirit was very much among us. And truly, it was.
That same morning, I met two men who are now my friends. Ronnie and Bones.
Ronnie walked into the parking lot early that morning, coffee in his hand, ready for fellowship. He called out to Alan as he approached, happy to see him and quickly introduced himself to me and the others in our group. Ronnie lives in an apartment, thanks to the help of a caseworker at the Salvation Army, though he came for the breakfast and to hang out with his friends.
Bones came to the parking lot a few hours before we woke up, having just walked into town from Elgin. He walked for two days.
Both men knew each other, knew Alan, and looked out for us. At one point, after Holy Spirit Adam had interrupted me several times in a row, Bones sat himself between Adam and me to give me a break. Ronnie looked over my things as I made another trip to the bathroom and stayed close to me anytime Alan stepped away.
Over the next 24 hours, I learned a bit more about Ronnie and Bones.
Ronnie got co-opted by a gang at a young age, spent 10 years in prison (the details of which he did not share), and somewhere along the way came to know and love Jesus. When it got hot outside and my backpack felt heavy, Ronnie carried it for me. As we were leaving a church service under the IH 35 bridge Saturday afternoon, another woman and I were walking a block ahead of our group, just half a block away from passing by the homeless shelter we had visited the night before. Ronnie ran to catch up with us and escort us past it. Four blocks later, as we passed by the entrance to the swanky Driskill Hotel, I found myself similarly protective, hoping to neutralize the judgmental stares of the patrons upon my new friend.
Bones was raised by his Marine Corps father and grandfather who showed little mercy toward him. He worked on a ranch, was a carpenter, on a road construction crew, and other jobs, getting badly addicted some points along the way. Several years ago he was hit by a truck as a pedestrian and nearly died. His body moved with the aches and pains of someone pieced back together, though that didn’t stop him from picking up each piece of trash he saw in the parking lot and walking it to the dumpster, or making trips from the park to the museum to refill our water bottles in the afternoon. Bones talked freely about Jesus and how he thanks God every day for his life.
These are gentlemen.
Ronnie and Bones had heard of Community First! Village, but they hadn’t seen it, so Saturday afternoon we decided to head that direction. A rough hour-long bus ride followed by an almost mile walk, and we had arrived. We were home.
It was as if we walked out of hell and into the Promised Land.
The Village is peaceful and inviting. The fridge is filled with cold water, and a picnic table and chairs welcomed us all to put up our
feet. We feasted on fajitas, cold beer, and fellowship. And when the evening came, we each had real, safe, cozy shelter.
And we rested.