Stepping out into the frigid air, Grant was greeted by a steady hard rain. He sought temporary shelter on a bench, protected by a tree in Prefontaine Park. The jacket from the Bargain Box, was much warmer than the blazer. Still the cold pierced his skin, rattling his bones.
He lugged the backpack onto the bench. The zipper stuck as he tried to unearth the contents. Inside the pack was an extra set of clothes, a pair of underwear and wool socks, a tarp and poncho, one blanket, toothpaste and toothbrush, deodorant, a bible with highlighted verses and a red notebook, the pages blank, except for one word: Agape.
“What is this ‘love thy neighbor selflessly’ day? Lesson learned. Now can you please lift this curse so I can go home?” Grant shouted to the sky. Silence. “This whole ordeal is pointless.”
The rain palpitated as an offbeat symphony of the elements. Some would hear the music in nature’s chaos, but to Grant it was a nuisance, torture that irritated his nerves and tested his patience. He didn’t like the cold damp state of this world. Even the tree’s branches could only shelter him from the rain for so long.
He gazed a statue at the far side of the park, memorializing Father Prefontaine, the first Catholic priest to set up ministry in Seattle. At the time the town was a seedy lumber town with 600 residents. He counted only ten Catholics at his first mass. His superiors back east thought his mission to evangelize the area was futile, how much good can a priest in a haven of greed, corruption, the foul-mouthed pioneer drinking class. Still Prefontaine persisted, working to light the way to Christ, building a foundation. By 1867, he’d raised enough funds to build a church in Pioneer Square. Even then many scorned it as futile, pointless waste, yet his persistence opened the door of faith to many living in the abyss of doubt. Perseverance to do what is right, even if it is difficult, to trust in the love as a bridge to light, even in the grips of uncertainty and darkness.
Grant’s stomach growled, the morning’s cinnamon bun a distant memory. His gut felt empty, his mood dejected. Listless, he rattled his brain seeking some way to get out of this mess.
“This can’t be a nightmare, otherwise I could just wake up, returning to the comfort of my penthouse.”
Grant was beyond frustrated. Why would God send him on this mission with so little guidance, let alone basic information?
“Saint Nicholas, I could use some help,” Grant pleaded. “I’ll do anything at this point to break this curse.”
“You think this is a curse,” The ethereal saint, appeared, jovial with his laugh. “This experience is a blessing. Sing praises to God for the opportunity to reclaim your soul.”
“I have a hard time being grateful for waking up, covered in feces, without money, hungry and homeless.” Grant frustrated. “If this is a blessing, I doubt I’ll ever embrace faith, let alone the understanding to trust in a god that has forsaken me, left me on the streets. How can I trust? How can I love my neighbor when I hate myself? I abhor living this way.”
“God is love, he is all good and merciful. Tests and trials from God are meant to refine the spirit to grow in faith. It takes humility to break the chains of pride. When pride comes, acting as your shield, guard, foundation then you will be led to disgrace. God is supreme judge, and he will judge with fire, he works through our flaws and fallen state to bring us to grace.”
“God’s arbitrary moral codes. Grace is supposed to be a gift, yet I have to endure judgment to the extreme, walking a thin narrow, path, left to beg and plead. In my book that is being bound to unforgiving chains. It is a game.”
“You have to prepare room in your heart and soul for the light of Christ. You are so consumed by pride, hate, self-loathing, anger… it took bringing you to this extreme to open your eyes to the light. Humility.”
“I’m not humbled, I’m disgusted.”
“You were investing all your worth in worldly authority, not the eternal spirit which calls for love, joy, peace…You are so accustomed to the dark, resting in the authority of monetary wealth, pride and selfish desire, that light of love and gifts of the spirit you will receive in Christ is a blinding force right now. Your eyes are burning, adjusting your perception. It is a journey that will take time. This is a hard lesson, but it will prepare your heart and give you a full life. Today’s lesson, you are relying on love, agape, the selfless love of God that is at work in those full of the spirit of agape love. God isn’t punishing, causing you to suffer. He is refining you.”
“Refining?” Grant rolled his eyes. “Suffering only puts me in a foul mood. I’ll take the chance with my wayward soul. Please send me back.”
“Suffering is your former life. You were in a constant battle, your soul tattered, your mind set on a thirst for consumption and hungry for money that only left you empty. You were lonely and afraid. Suffering on a temporal level, a building of spirit is better than the black hole you lived in before.”
“This is about what? Humility.”
“Yes, as well as other lessons. As an intercessory saint, I can pray for you and give you guidance, but you alone must come to understanding of these spiritual lessons. The twelve gifts of Christmas are available to you, but it is something you must accept with full conviction and trust in order to receive. It is a journey. I can offer advice periodically, but it is your task to choose love and embrace the Holy Trinity, listen to the Holy Spirit for guidance. You are so confused and lost, having relied on such castles built on sand that you will have to peel back the layers. You can mentally accept something, but to truly change your destiny, your life path it must be a choice of the spirit within. That takes time, but time working on your soul is well spent.”
“I don’t want this journey, these gifts.” Grant protested as if he could manipulate his circumstances like he was negotiating a contract.
“In time that will be your choice, but God doesn’t give up that easily. He works through our brokenness to heal and to comfort. Take heart, Romans 5:3-5, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
“How am I supposed to learn these lessons? Don’t you have a playbook or itinerary I can use?”
“You’ll find your way. I suggest you cast your pride aside and go to the dinner at St. Anthony’s. It is where the lost can be filled with good things.”
“You keep talking about pride, but frankly I am not proud, I’m confident. I was focused on my business and work. I see that I should have been more concerned with other people, perhaps not as ruthless with my layoff policy, but if I’m proud then it is an asset rather than a flaw.”
“There is a stark difference between confidence and the sin of pride. Humility can lead to bold confidence and faith of action. Pride in one’s work can be a good thing if you mean it that you respect your work and want to do it well. You are poisoned by conceit, arrogance, self-satisfaction and vanity, self-importance, and desire for power for the sake of selfish authority. Love is the first lesson, because it is the antidote for all vices, it opens the door to other gifts of Christmas. It is a healing force.”
“I can love. I just don’t have time…?” Grant reasoned, conflicted about the core of love. Even in his thoughts he wanted to use love as a tool to manipulate a way out of this nightmare, instead of receiving its gift whole-heartedly.
“1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8…”
“Not another set of Bible verses.” Grant sighed.
“You requested a roadmap. What better direction will you find than in the scripture?” Nicholas’ jolly disposition was infectious, even Grant was affected by that spirit of love and want of love. “Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts…. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails…”
“I’m brooding over injury now,” Grant admitted. “I’m not patient, I’m notoriously jealous and pompous, with an inflated ego and I always seek after my own interests.”
“And you do have that quick-temper,” Nicholas pointed out with a compassionate smile. “At least you are finally realizing these flaws that trap you in darkness. Trust in God’s love and you’ll be brought into a place where all those mortal burdens are stifled, and you’ll understand the true meaning of life. It isn’t money, but love of all creatures, great and small.”
Before Grant could utter another word, Saint Nicholas disappeared.
“Merry Christmas,” a husky man with a gray beard and blue eyes, wearing a bob-cap approached. “Mind if I sit down?”
“It is a free country,” Grant realized the harshness of his tone.
“This rain won’t let up. Then again we do live in the Emerald City.” The man had a vibrant personality. “I’m Wilson. I help the church out with miscellaneous tasks, from mowing the lawn to vacuuming for twenty hours each week. It’s not much, but the cash keeps me fed, while I look for housing. I had today off but didn’t want to miss Christmas services. I was here last night too, hearing the bells at midnight, singing Joy to the World, it filled my heart with good things. All the junk in life is so small when you’ve got the peace and joy, the love of Christ. Life is beautiful.”
“You are homeless?”
“I prefer residentially challenged,” Wilson’s smile revealed cracked and missing teeth. “I had a hard bout, after I got back from the military. Three tours in Iraq. PTSD led to drug abuse and my wife left me. I was in a bad place. For a long time, I was just angry. I let that bitterness drive my life, I blamed the world for all my problems. I realized the world, culpable as it, that
I had to take accountability, to let go. Not conform to the brokenness of the world but be transformed by love and hope. Love from the kindness of strangers showed me life in a new light. It was hard to accept it at first, but eventually I understood that peace and yeah, I’m struggling, but I have hope and I’m sober. It is a Merry Christmas indeed.”
“What about the VA, government programs?” Grant started to judge Wilson, but he bit his lip. Grant realized in his current pitiful state he was in no place to judge anyone.
“They help but it doesn’t fill all the gaps,” Wilson sighed. “God has my back though. You start seeing this rain, not as depressing annoyance, but as a life giving force. You see life in a new light, not rosy, but able to discern, the gift of love gives you the perseverance to take on the challenge.”
“I’m new at this…You could say I’m being punished for being conceited and greedy.”
“It isn’t punishment as much as a lesson. It is a trial, but you’ve got to see tests as a beautiful second chance, a learning period, otherwise you’ll be sick of people, angry with the world, entitled. Trust me, it took me years to even start to let go of my anger, guilt, and betrayal. I was carrying a ton of bricks on my shoulders – but every day I lay down that burden, chip away at the anger and it saved my life.”
“Letting go and moving on is important.”
“You know life is a gift, no matter how bleak and it has been pretty low for me, but that humility that loss of dignity, I found the courage in that to turn to Christ and I knew in Him I have worth, and that push led me to get sober and work on going from life support, guided by anger, to remission and grace.”
“It’s not easy to embrace a trial such as this. My world has been flipped upside down. I’m used to valuing my worth with my bank account.”
“Learn, love, live,” Wilson proclaimed. “How long have you been living on the street.”
“It is hard to say…not long. I don’t know where to go, what to do. I’m supposed to be on a journey, but how can you travel when you don’t know the way?” Grant spoke evasively as he tried to understand the purpose of his fate.
“Love is the way. I’m talking pure love, not selfish love, but love that elevates.”
“Look why don’t you spend Christmas Day with me and the boys at Pioneer Place Park. It isn’t much, but we have some soup and crackers, good times with good people. Tonight, come with us to the big dinner at St. Anthony’s. They are putting out the red carpet, I’m talking a feast of turkey, sweet potato casserole, asparagus…good eating.”
“I don’t know…”
“Come on, we’re a safe, kind group of people. You are welcome to our community. It’d be better than spending Christmas alone.”
“I suppose I could go to your, um, hangout for a bit.” Grant gulped.
“Grab your pack and let’s go!”
Pioneer Place Park is in the heart of the historic square. The green space is a haven for many homeless people who live on the fringes of the neighborhood, a public space where they can spend the day on park benches or under picnic shelters, waiting for the doors for the nearby shelter to open up. Pioneer Square has a problem with homelessness, some even setting up tents on city sidewalks in front of businesses. It is a constant tug of war between respecting the homeless and the conflict that emerges from homelessness in the area, including public disturbance, such as public urination, pestering of pedestrians and cursing out business owners.
Many of the homeless populace are mentally ill, disabled and drug dependent. They are human souls – children of God, just going through a difficult time.
“The majority of homeless are not violent, however mental illness can cause them to be confused and belligerent at times. It is easy to lash out at the homeless, judging them all as problems, trash to destroy, in truth the root of the problem is a need of respect and mercy for their individual needs. Be it mental health treatment, drug rehab, career counseling, a warm bed and meal…each case is different, all tied to the common plight of being in forsaken midst of society, in need of compassion.” Grant recalled a conversation with Teresa earlier that day.
Entering the city park, a diverse of twenty residentially challenged men and women, greeted Wilson and Grant. They had set up a temporary camp with tents and a spread of canned food and crackers, water, and juice.
“Old Man Wilson, good to see you bro.” A tall man, clean-cut, in jeans and a Seattle Hawks sweatshirt approached.
“Jepson, Merry Christmas!” Wilson hugged his friend. “Where is Cassie and the girls?”
“In the van, trying to stay warm. They cannot wait until tonight’s gift exchange at Saint Anthony’s. The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree folks were kind enough to provide them with a gift from ‘Saint Nick’ last night. Kyla got the doll she wanted, and Pepper got a gift certificate to Elliott Bay Book Company. She cannot wait to pick out a few books tomorrow when they open. God knows I am grateful for such generosity. The gifts really brought hope to the kids.”
“It has been hard on them, with your losing the house, moving from transitional housing to sleeping in the truck.”
“I feel guilty, dragging them around this way. I just cannot bear for our family to be torn apart. Kyla and Pepper in foster care…maybe I’m being selfish. At least then they’d have a roof over their head.” Jepson wiped away stray tears.
“Those kids need you. Cassie has her job, so at least you can put food on the table. Things will turn around. You’ll get a job.”
“It has been a year and things keep getting bleaker. If not for the kindness of strangers, Cassie, the kids…I’d lost them long ago. Still, we’re better off than many on the streets. At least we have the van and Cassie has a job. Love keeps us together.’
“Jepson, I’d like to introduce you to Grant. He is new around these parts. Fell on some tough luck. He is down on the spirit of Christmas, hopeless, wanted to cheer him up.”
“Pleasure to know you, Grant.”
“You lost your job?” Grant curious about Jepson’s backstory.
“I owned a construction company. Things got difficult after the housing crisis in 2008. It took three mortgages and a handful of debt to stay afloat. I finally had to declare bankruptcy. Our house was foreclosed on. We were able to keep the van because it was in Cassie’s name. We sleep in it, cook in it…live in it. Problem is where to park it at night, as it is against the law in some areas to sleep in your car. She’s my wife of twenty years. We have two beautiful daughters. Cassie is a librarian. It isn’t a ton of money, but we are blessed to have it.” Jepson spoke about his history with a certain disconnect. He couldn’t dwell on the past. Every breath and step was a survival towards a brighter future. “What about you man?”
“It is hard to explain. I woke up in an alley, suddenly I’m homeless.”
“That’s tough. I hope things get better for you.”
“I don’t know how the system works, where to sleep, just wandering around.” It suddenly hit Grant that he was only living minute to minute. What if this curse, ‘blessing,’ lasted through Christmas? He felt the despair testing him. Would he ever regain his life?
“Don’t worry, we’ll bring you up to speed. The streets are harsh, but you can survive. The city has services, outreach to give us a hand up, and you just need to know what areas to avoid. Most of us are trying to stay clean, get our lives together, be peaceful citizens, living in extreme circumstances. There is a seedier side to the street, drug dealers, gangs, and prostitution. Those who have dependency issues, often fall prey to these street urchins, thugs who use them, putting profit and manipulation over people. I had a friend, Charlie, good fellow. He had a heroin addiction, started dealing for them just to keep the habit going. They found his body, dead from being beaten to death, in an area part. He screwed up a drug deal and paid the price. I have another friend, Willow, she was a troubled teen. Ran away from home. A big thug, promised her a job and housing, turns out he was in the trafficking business. He got Willow addicted to drugs and used that to keep her getting raped by johns. Willow was arrested for prostitution, finally able to get some help. Still why should she be arrested when the trafficking lords and johns go free. You learn quickly, to stay out of their way and do you best to live day to day as safely as possible.”
“It ain’t easy though,” a twenty something, entered the conversation. “Between places like the Youth Day Center closing down and the sit/lie ordinance. Where are we supposed to go? I wake up every morning from my curb under the overpass before sunrise. If you’re not cleared out by six a.m. on the street and at many of the shelters, you risk being ticketed, cursed out by businessmen and at worst beaten up.”
“It is a complex issue. The businesses do like having open sidewalks and there are some among us that get violent and aggressive with passerby. We don’t want to be sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk – it is demoralizing. There is just nowhere else to go.” Wilson sighed.
“Where do you sleep?”
“It varies, from night to night, park benches, sidewalks, in bushes, and if you’re lucky a shelter or transitional housing. There are nearly 9,000 residentially challenged people in Seattle. The city and non-profits try to fill the void, but there are only around 3,000 temporary shelter beds and 2,500 transitional housing beds in the city. That leaves 1,000-3,000 on any given place wandering the streets.”
“You try to get into shelters, but for those of us that work, it can be hard to make it there in time to get a bed.”
“Homeless people work?” Grant found the statement shocking. He always assumed that all homeless people were lazy, crazy bums who didn’t work and felt entitled to life. He was finding nothing could be further from the truth, a new layer of love, revealed to him.
“Yeah, a lot of us have full time jobs, we just cannot afford rents due to lack of affordable housing. I work at the Westlake Center forty hours a week. Thank God I have health insurance from my coffee house job. I just don’t have a place to spend the night. I had to drop out of school and my parents – that’s a difficult relationship.” The twenty something named Max reflected. “Those that don’t have jobs spend their days waiting in line at unemployment and workforce centers, at the library doing research and drafting resumes, or with social service directors at area outreach centers. Social services has limited resources, so to get into a long-term housing situation, even for a few weeks, there is a waiting lists. For medical care, you can get Medicaid, but many people have their identity cards stolen on the street or are fearful of going to the doctor. Free clinics do operate, still the lines are long…”
“I read an article in Real Change that over half of persons on the street are severely disabled. They have chronic heart conditions, crippling injuries, diabetes as well as mental health issues. Many receive disability income, but it just isn’t enough to pay for housing. So, they have money for food, bus fare, and clothes…just not a place to rest their heads.” Real Change is a Seattle based periodical that low-income and residentially challenged people can sell on the streets to help make money for food or essential needs. The paper is the source for information about social issues affecting King County.
“Shouldn’t the state provide care, in hospitals or low-income housing for the disabled and seniors?” Grant found the issue alarming. He noticed among the crowd in Pioneer Place Park was a lady in her eighties, bound to a wheelchair. He remembered the beggar face of Saint Nicholas, an elderly man on the streets, desperate and alone. He forsook him. “I deserve to suffer for being so blind to the plight of another,” Grant realized.
“They try, but there aren’t enough beds and lack of funding keeps things tight. A lot of the disabled and elderly are kind people, who spent most of their lives working, raising families, many volunteering in soup kitchens, thinking they’d never wind up in this shape. Recessions occur, layoffs, bills don’t get paid, and people get sick and bound to medical bills…many people live paycheck to paycheck…savings dries up. It can happen to anyone.”
“It isn’t so bad sleeping on the streets, the main dilemma is keeping clean. It steals a person’s dignity when you are forced to urinate in the bushes and go days, sometimes weeks without showers,” Tommy Dorset, a retired teacher who lost his retirement in 2008’s economic downturn. A debilitating neurological injury eats up his income, forcing him to live on and off the street going from shelter to shelter. “Thank God for the Urban Rest Stop. They have showers open every day as well as laundry facilities for free. Services like that are a lifeline, giving us back our dignity, suddenly we aren’t a stereotyped faceless vagrant on the street, but a human, a person. Being clean allows your personal confidence to apply for jobs, go in public places without the scorn of judgment.”
“One time I had $50 of money I had earned from mowing lawns. I went into a restaurant, and they called the police, saying I was loitering, when in truth I had been there fifteen minutes, paid for the meal and planned to leave shortly thereafter. I understand fear, I used to treat people the same way, as a nuisance. All life has value, not trash to be carted off.” Wilson held.
“What about food?” Grant questioned.
“Food is available at shelters, day centers, soup kitchens, the food bank…I have been hungry on the street, but God shines his light and feeds us. Blessed by every meal. You enjoy every bite as if it is your last meal. Gratitude.”
“You will need a better jacket and an extra set of clothes for this winter blast of air coming up,” Wilson observed Grant’s outfit. Teresa had provided him with good clothes, but the Bargain Box didn’t have many jackets left after their Christmas Eve Coats distribution. “No worries, The Salvation Army and Goodwill offer warm clothing …a sleeping bag and mat will be essential if you’ll be living on the street more than a night or two. There is an outreach agency ‘Warm Friends’ that provides sleeping bags, blankets and mats for free, based on availability.”
“Where is Warm Friends?”
“I’ll take you there in the morning,” Wilson promised. “We’ll be able to sleep in St. Anthony’s Gym tonight.”
For the next five hours, the odd group of friends, dined on canned cranberries, stale bread, and sparkling cider. The food filled Grant’s stomach, lifting his hunger. Many of the residentially challenged in Pioneer Place are musicians, who spend their nights playing gigs at area clubs, crashing with friends and relatives when they can. The musicians broke out into a Christmas Carol jam session. A homeless acapella quartet of classically trained teens broke out in the ‘Once in Royal David’s City.’
“He came down to earth from Heaven. Who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall? With the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our Savior Holy…”
“These guys are so talented. It is hard to believe that live on the street. They deserve to perform at the Benaroya Hall.” Grant amazed by their heavenly voices.
“They call themselves ‘Desert Rain,’ a symbol of the fire and peace of life, the struggle and beauty of existence. The group are classically trained and perform at city functions, but music is a hard way to make a living. They work odd jobs and sing on the street to fuel the dream. They live in their van, sharing expenses, using music to bring a voice to the homeless, to kindle hope and spread love.”
“Desert Rain.” Grant though about the statement. No greater desert is there in a soul, than the fear and desolation of not having a home, yet somehow, in his displaced state, Grant could see with more perception and understanding that ever before. It scared him, that fire of understanding. He dreaded humility, yet found it to be a cleansing force, rain in the desert of life.
*Note – I originally wrote this story in 2012. A lot of my research was based on social services sites from official Seattle and King Country stats and outreach forums.
To help donate those in need I recommend the following charities:
Catholic Community Services -Seattle
I’ll post additional resources in a future blog post.