Picture of Janet


Life in the Woods

Reading Time: 6 minutes

We’d piled into various cars.

There were too many of us. We were headed to overpasses and intersections known for sheltering the homeless of northwest Houston.

The last week of torrential rains in Houston had brought out the mercy in many.

Strangely enough, part of this spirit of mercy and good will might be attributed to the media. For some reason, as flood waters rose, no one’s first instinct was to loot so that bad news couldn’t be flashed in graphic detail nationwide with every reporter who had ventured our way.

I’m not saying we didn’t  have the potential.

Maybe the flooding just happened too quickly. Maybe there wasn’t a people group to blame and create a nucleus of resentment and fear.

Whatever happened, the early ripples of our natural catastrophe propagated into ever widening circles of something different. Everybody and their brother brought out john boats, old refrigerators fashioned into lifeboats, and jacked up pickups in attempts to help the strained emergency people evac nursing homes, flooded apartments, and stranded motorists. Churches and Chick fil A stepped up and into food distribution. People opened their hearts and provided fresh water and willing hands.

And Serve Saturday came to my home church as they continued their efforts and Brenda, who I’ve talked about before, did what she’s good at and gathered us less-inclined-to-good-deeds to help with feeding the homeless since the floods had receded.

If you haven’t been to Houston, perhaps you don’t know what  the homeless here do.

We have a lot of them in every part of the city. Generally, they look much older than they are, a majority of them the age of my sons. They are mostly homeless by choice. As much choice as you have when every breath you live is for the next fix or drink. Or if you are trying to please the voices in your head that no one else can hear.

Those who prefer homelessness to the rigors of a more classic societal structure, form their own fluid communities with boundaries marked out in busy intersections within walking distance to a nearby wooded area.

“Do you want to go see their camp?”

Our leader had corralled us into the open space of our first stop, a strip shopping center. Sleeping up against the dumpster, a bearded man heard our commotion, looked at us, and moved away. A mixed, medium sized female hound followed him, her eyes alert.

“That is Michael. He doesn’t like how many people are here. His parents just live a few blocks down the road.”

Several people had opted to go to the camp and were getting ready to cross the road over to the wooded area.  I asked,

“Do they mind us doing this?”

“No. They invite us. They are generally quite proud of the camps.”

I needed to think about this.

In the small green space, two nylon tents, one erect and one collapsed, indicated the life of this community. Soiled bedding was everywhere, in the tents and out. Garbage littered the tamped down area, the majority of it a staggering amount of cigarette butts. The butts made a carpet of white cigarette filters bounded in yellow paper between the two tents.

By the time we got back, ‘Asian Dave’ had come up to our cars with his hand out for a handshake,  introducing himself to the new comers. He sported a kind, mischievous grin. A small, slight man, his Asian skin was browned by the Gulf Coast sun.

“Is there anything you need?” our leader asked, after Asian Dave had been served the hot casserole with noodles and meat and peppers that had filled the van with spicy aroma. He chose a Dr. Pepper to wash it all down with.

“I could use some markers.” Asian Dave answered, and pulled from his pockets the art work he spent time doing. “Mine are gone. They got wet this last week.” His teeth were rotten, his breath fetid, sort of sweet, with alcohol.

Michael had moved up quietly from the place in the shade and out into the sun. The smell of the casserole probably changed his mind.

Rail thin, his eyes tired and strung out, he was sober at the moment. His face was rimmed with a full beard. It made him look older. I bet he was 30. His dog, Lady, stood between him and us, her nose almost always right at his calf.

I reached down to pet her.

She took it for only a minute and then she raised her head and bared her teeth. Michael nudged her with his knee, his voice stern but gentle. The dog accepted his reprimand but hardly lost sight of her job. She never once let her guard down. Michael told me she’d had three litters of puppies.

“She was a good mother, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah, she was,” he said, thinking about that good moment and balancing his food in one hand accepted a bottle of water. Lady’s tags, proof of rabies vaccinations, jangled as they walked back to the dumpster, her belly swaying. The last litter had quit nursing sometime ago.

The next stop was 5 miles away.

In an old, white rusty Honda minivan, its tires bald and angled out away from the body, a woman and man occupied the front seat. The woman leaned over to say something to the man, opened the door and then walked over to where we were.

“How is Peter today?” our leader asked.

“Not good,” Kathy said and tears threatened to spill out of her old eyes, their washed out blue fading even more in a face of skin that looked like old leather shoes. “His kidneys are shutting down, but he won’t stop drinking.”

Sadness and worry, fear and doubt, poured out of her like the rain that fell from the sky last week.

“Do you need anything?”

She held the food and water in her shaky hands. She and Peter needed some new shirts. They found two small ones in the pile in the box we had brought and stuffed them in another bag.  As we were packing up, I watched her walk to the car and open the door. I couldn’t hear what she said. But if you’ve been a caretaker for a sick and loved one, you didn’t have to hear her words. You would feel them in your heart, echoed in your memory.

On the ride home, I gave myself time to think about what I had learned.

I am certain that God who must be the best teacher in the universe, was hoping that was the direction I would go.

He wanted me to see a group of people in the way that He sees them, in the way I should see them.

I’m not new to addiction or mental illness. I know enough to know that both fall into the category that we like to think isn’t a reality, the one that is part choice, part unfortunate genetics and often really sucky luck.

I  encounter  homeless every day, panhandling, begging for dollars on busy corners. I almost never give them any. My mother and I have regular arguments over this. My dad, the recovered alcoholic, warned me against giving money the one time as a young woman I told him I had stuffed a 20 dollar bill into the slack hand of a passed out drunk on a street corner.  And if I am honest, I am not compassionate towards the sentimental, often dishonest message of the hand printed signs of most who stand and beg.

And yet…

Even my brother, as a young man, a friend of his dead from an overdose, warned against not doing anything to help people who need a hand.

But Saturday was a different kind of knowledge. It’s one thing to feel like you will likely never identify with begging on a street corner, because in times of  dire financial straits you’ve chosen other options. Or that after decades of living you have yet to give up everything for a drink or a high.

It’s quite another to get a chance to see someone differently than your notions have prejudiced you to. It’s something to recognize in another the love and care of a beloved pet, the need to create and draw, and the fear of an illness that may consume someone you love and have the knowledge go straight to your heart because no matter the trappings, the truth is, you have more common ground than not. And the only reason you get to know this? Because someone has taken the time, Spirit driven for weeks, to honestly and truly make friends with people who live differently than they.

It’s a miracle when God gives you a little glimpse of how He sees us.

It’s a wonder to see how He uses those that love Him.

It’s good heart knowledge to know that He sees each of us, every single one, all equal in need of mercy and grace and hope.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent posts!