One of the most interesting and even amusing contacts I’ve had with a homeless person took place at Penn Station in New York City a few years back.
I was there way ahead of time for a 6 a.m. train to Savannah and decided that breakfast sounded like a good idea. On the concourse were a number of people who surely had spent the night. They had blankets or ponchos or winter jackets wrapped around them and were using backpacks, plastic bags, and bundles of old clothing as pillows.
Right outside Tim Horton’s was a whiskered man who was just waking up. I told him I was going to get some breakfast and asked if I could get him something. He asked for a medium coffee with cream, two packets of sugar, and an egg and bacon sandwich on rye. Here was a guy who knew the menu and decided that this nun was an experienced waitress. To tell the truth, I am, but I never list it on my resumé. My table waiting experience dates from what some would consider the prehistoric era.
The man got his breakfast, as ordered, with a bonus sticky bun, if I remember correctly, and I got mine too. I don’t recall his name, though I do remember the names of a couple of others whom I’ve talked to —Wayne, who lived under the George Washington Bridge and kept me posted when I was stuck in a traffic backup at 9 p.m., and Terry, whom I met in Beaufort this past fall.
Over the years, I’ve offered donuts and coffee or juice, crackers, and raisins to a number of homeless people. Conversations with them often reveal that they are veterans. Some drown their sorrows in alcohol; others don’t give any evidence of drinking but are simply weary and sad. I’ve met them in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Beaufort, and Bluffton.
Only twice has any street person gotten angry when I offered food instead of cash. One was a man who was obviously strung out. The other, sad to say, was a woman with a young child who made it clear that she did not want food for either one of them but just wanted money.
I recall a touching moment when a man gladly accepted some of my lunch box contents and said the orange juice would be great not just for him but for his buddy one street over. He asked if I had any more. I did, so his buddy got some vitamin C too.
The reason I share these brief anecdotes is to point out that there are often quite normal and humane people living under flattened cardboard boxes and on steam grates. Their stories and circumstances vary, but there is always hurt and heartbreak and some degree of helplessness. Blame is not an appropriate response. Sometimes the bedraggled person turns out to be more Christ-like than we ourselves are. He did tell us that would be the case, didn’t he?
Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, is the Secretary for Education and Faith Formation at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at email@example.com.