At the end of our street, just beyond the church and the playground, there is a recessed doorway. Here, bundled away from the cold of winter and the heat of summer, you can usually find a homeless lady named Janet. Last summer was a whirlwind of sun cream, ice-cream and trips to the playground and I walked past her almost every day. The sight of her dressed in black and quietly hidden away was such a contrast to the brightness and joyful effervescence of the children at the playground. It made my heart ache.
I would regularly say hello, buy Streetwise (the US equivalent of the Big Issue) and ask her if I could get her something to eat or drink but she would always reply, politely and with a small smile, “no thank you”. After several months of this I decided I needed to do more so one November morning, when I asked her whether I could get her a drink and she, as usual, said no, instead of carrying on, I stopped and asked her how she was doing. We ended up having a conversation about politics (Trump had just won the election). Before I left, I reached out to shake her hand. She seemed surprised and a little reluctant but she eventually reached out to take my hand. That day marked the beginning of what has become a complex but genuine friendship.
Over the next few weeks I stopped by to talk to her and she told me stories about her life and her family. As the weather grew colder I became increasingly worried about how she would cope and asked what her plans were. She explained that she was afraid to stay in shelters and told me her dream was to earn enough to rent a studio apartment. Feeling motivated, I spent the next week phoning around and sending emails, trying to find a place for her. Miraculously it worked. My email reached someone with a contact in social housing and, against the odds, a space opened up in a building downtown.
Excited to tell her the good news, I skipped down the street to Janet’s doorway where she wept with happiness. But over the next few days she became less positive until eventually she told me that she didn’t think the time was right, that she wasn’t sure about the building and that she wanted to find something closer. I was disappointed and, if I’m honest, a little annoyed. Hadn’t I done exactly what she’d asked? Didn’t she realise that she was lucky to be offered this apartment?
I pulled back for a few days. I prayed about it. I began to feel ashamed. I was making my ‘help’ more about me than about her. If I wanted to help her I had to meet her where she was, to really listen to her, to continue to offer the help she asked even if she later rejected it. Because, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians, love is not proud or self-serving but is patient and protects, hopes and perseveres.
I went back to Janet that evening and, in the dark, I apologised to her for being pushy. I explained that I cared for her and that I wanted to help her. As I listened to her, I began to understand that her situation was far more complex than I had realised. As much as she wanted to be in an apartment, she was afraid of the change and was struggling to acknowledge the reality of her situation. She told me I reminded her of her younger self when she was wealthy and had children. She told me that she came to the doorway to hide and that she felt embarrassed because I had “found her out”. In her mind, if she could keep her homelessness hidden, she wouldn’t really be homeless.
Since that night I have stopped trying to fix Janet and have just tried to be her friend. Over the winter I brought her hot water bottles and jacket potatoes, at Christmas I gave her a card and present, at Easter I invited her to church. She chats with my children and when we got back from our holiday they brought photos to show her. I encourage my friends and neighbours to buy Streetwise from her. I remind her to let me know if she ever changes her mind about trying to find an apartment. I sincerely hope that one day she will accept my help but I have stopped pressuring her. Mostly we just talk.
My friendship with Janet has completely changed how I respond to the people I meet who are homeless. I didn’t realise it at the time but, in the past, when I saw someone living on the streets I would see a problem rather than a person. I would feel overwhelmed by my emotion but be paralysed to respond. I would, subconsciously, analyse whether they were deserving of my help and, if I did offer that help I would do so awkwardly. If I didn’t help someone I would excuse myself by telling myself it was too dangerous to get out my wallet or that they were probably on drugs or would use the money to buy alcohol. Now I see individuals with stories and struggles. I see a messiness that needs to be embraced not cleaned up. I’ve stopped analysing and worrying and trying to decide who to help and instead I just respond. That doesn’t always mean giving money – I believe that giving time and attention is by far the most important thing I can do – but I do give money a lot more than I did.
A few weeks ago I was downtown and I saw a woman holding a sign that said she was cold and hungry. I stopped and asked her how she was and what I could do for her. She asked for a blanket and a travel card. I went into the shop opposite and the cashier remarked that I was being kind. He explained that he used to help too but has since given up because “there are so many of them” and that “they” lie about what they need and how they spend their money. I told him that I thought he was probably right but that I still wanted to help because my hunch is that responding in love is better than walking away in judgement.
In this week’s edition of Streetwise there is an interview with Pope Francis in which he is asked whether it is right to give alms to those who beg. His answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. He acknowledges the concern people have about whether the money will be spent wisely but asks us to turn our judgement on ourselves and ask “what secret ‘happiness’ do you pursue?” Because, as Pope Francis knows, none of us are wholly wise or deserving. What matters more than how our money will be spent is “a good deed, helping someone who asks you for help, looking into their eyes and touching their hands.”
I am so glad I reached out for Janet’s hand that November morning. I thought I could help her and perhaps, in a small way, I have. But, ultimately, it was my perspective that needed transforming and I suspect she has changed my life far more than I have changed hers.