(At his request, “David” is a pseudonym.)
I first saw David standing at the top of the exit ramp on a Virginia freeway several towns away. He wore boots, clean jeans, a denim jacket and a cowboy hat with personality. His face was tan, crevassed and worn-out, but his eyes were surprisingly fresh.
I recall wishing my own smile was as hopeful as this homeless man.
When the car came to a stop, I rolled down my window and called him over for a few dollars. He took it and expressed genuine gratitude that cannot be faked. As we pulled away, my only passenger — my 10-year-old son — shouted from the back seat, “Give him a church card!”
I smiled in the rear-view mirror and thought, “He’s been paying more attention than I realized.”
We waved the car behind us to pass and invited the man back over. “One more thing,” I said. “This is a card for the local congregation of our church. It’s got my number on it. If you’d like to join us some Sunday, give us a call anytime. Or for anything at all.”
We shook hands and said farewell.
Two months later while traveling on business in California, my iPhone buzzed next to my hotel bed. It was much earlier than I planned to rise and I didn’t recognize the number. So I ignored it and went back to dreaming about waking up in my own bed and not one with a logo on the pillow.
I had no idea that as I slept another two hours under the Pacific Coast dawn, the wheels were already turning for a friendship that would open my heart and eyes to the plight of the homeless.
Later that morning, I listened to a voicemail from my roadside friend. David needed help. He’d been beaten by some gang members as part of a twisted initiation in a city 35 miles south of where we’d met. He said he mostly just needed food and added with a chuckle that they’d taken almost everything but his dignity.
Being 3,000 miles away, I texted a local friend from whom I’ve learned a lot about service and who’s shared many of my adventures. I knew he’d drop anything to call the man back. Within a few minutes, Stephen Funk had explained to David that I would be unable to help for another week or two, but that he’d be happy to provide assistance in the meantime.
There have been many calls and visits since, and Funk and I have gotten to know David quite well. While our friend might not agree, I think we’ve benefited and learned more from the friendship than he has.
It should have been obvious, but we’ve discovered firsthand that not all homeless are alike and that it’s dangerous to judge those we see standing on exit ramps, street corners or in parking lots looking for assistance.
David is in his 60s and has been homeless for just the last two years. A perfect storm hit during the holidays of 2012 and he lost his home, vehicle and job. With no family to rely on, David said he sought assistance in another nearby community where he’d once lived. To his dismay, he quickly learned that not all homeless men and women were as trustworthy, and some of the possessions he’d clung to began disappearing at the shelter.
He moved on, but soon recognized that when too many of his fellow homeless gathered, trouble often followed.
Though David has not sipped a drink in nearly 30 years, drugs and alcohol were common characters in these scenes. Because he’d witnessed with innocent eyes what the bottle had done to his father, David made a vow that when his own life ended, it would be for anything besides alcohol abuse.
Time after time he found a safe spot for shelter, cleaned and improved it, and then left when others defiled it with fights, drugs or other drama. For a short time he stayed with a couple with an extra bed, but when he sensed his presence was creating tension, he quietly left.
When we first visited David and saw his living conditions, we were impressed with its organization. He’d found an old abandoned building near a truck stop without “no trespassing” signs, something he’s always honored. Somehow he’d created a two-walled life under a canopy of falling concrete and graffiti with an inflatable mattress and quality sleeping bag. His books, toiletries and other items were neatly arranged. A prepaid cellphone sat on a broken chair near the bed.
On that visit and others, we learned that David is extremely well-read. He loves the Bible and has his favorite prophets and gospel principles. He traveled extensively earlier in his life and has worked hard for everything he’s ever earned and, tragically, lost.
He taught us about the culture of homelessness. While some game the systems of government assistance, others try to play by the rules, only to hit brick walls when they don’t have physical addresses.
While others in his predicament raise funds for habits of every imaginable kind, David only asks for money when he needs food or to buy a shower from the nearby truck stop.
David described the difficulties of finding work at his age and with a bad back and knees. When people roll down their windows and suggest he get a job, he smiles in return and thinks, “I wish I could. I’ve worked my while life.”
While others beg for money at popular exits along busy freeways or at city intersections, David seeks quieter spots. “It’s the most humbling thing I’ve ever done,” he told us. “And I refuse to make a sign. That feels permanent to me. Like it’s become my trade. I don’t want that. I just want to eat and keep my phone active until my health improves and I can find work.”
One Sunday morning David accepted an invitation to church. On the drive he spoke about the close calls in his life and how many times the Lord has blessed him. As a young man, he witnessed a friend at a high school graduation party gun down a drunken guest. He’s seen things both in the military and on the streets and escaped with nothing more than nightmares. During the last two years on the road, he’s watched desperate men and women break hearts and commandments to survive another day.
Then, at the same time he’s describing what it’s like to use a pocket knife to perform hip surgery on himself for a massive infection in a motel bathroom, he thanks heaven it wasn’t worse.
“I have nothing to complain about,” he said. “God’s been good to me.”
When the temperature recently dropped, Funk and I put him in a motel for a couple of nights. Three days later he called not to ask for one more night, one more favor or one more meal, but to say “thank you” one more time. He’d checked out and hauled his things back down to the concrete canopy.
Not long ago, wanting to bring his living arrangement out of the shadows, David called the Realtor on a nearby “For Sale” sign in the overgrown lot near his home. He offered to clean up and watch over the dilapidated property until they were able to sell it. In exchange, he wanted their blessing to stay. They refused and sent police. So he packed his things and walked away, leaving the property in better condition than he’d found it.
Last I spoke to David, he’d found an overpass farther south in Virginia and was recovering from shingles. He’d spent Thanksgiving wrapped in his sleeping bag nursing yet one more injury. One day before, someone hurled both a storm of expletives and a glass bottle at his head while he sat on a guardrail on an exit ramp.
“They don’t know me,” he whispered into the phone. “They assume the worst.”
Neither Funk nor I know where our friend will celebrate Christmas Day. He hasn’t answered his phone since Thanksgiving and the concrete slab he once called home remains vacant. We believe that wherever he is, he’s telling the truth, living honestly, saying his prayers and hoping for a better day.
Because we can’t find David, all we can do is offer a promise that every time we see someone like him, we’ll assume the best. This Christmas, you can make that promise, too.
Sure, sometimes we’ll be wrong. People will misuse the money or the time that we donate.
But sometimes they won’t.
Sometimes they really will buy a sandwich, a bottle of water and some shampoo. And no matter what they choose, is it our really place to judge? Maybe we should we leave that to the perfect One we celebrate.
Maybe they’ll do something else with those few dollars. Perhaps instead of drinking the money away, a common cliche, they’ll use it to buy another phone card to call a couple of friends to say thank you.
Merry Christmas David, wherever you are.
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