This stable was shelter for 6 Marys and no children.

One Mary talked quietly to herself, shuffled back and forth with coffee. She had a small backpack and two large garbage bags full of clothing and blankets.

Another Mary has diabetes and made her way around in a wheelchair. She has open sores on her hands and she wants to die. But she came in from the cold to sleep here, so there is still some survival left in her.

There were two quiet trans-Marys eating breakfast and and complaining bitterly about having to go back outside. It could have been because of the cold weather or the cold treatment out there. Three layers of sweaters can only protect you from so much.

A fifth Mary thanked everyone for her bed and her food. She was helpful and cheerful…until she was not. Something set off a memory and she traveled down an angry tangent while packing her belongings. I’ve heard her mention her children before, she’s lost custody and is trying, trying, trying to see them again.

The last Mary was quiet. Hardly a peep. Silently slept, silently ate, silently packed. Silent night. Was it a holy night?

This stable was shelter for 6 Marys and no children. But all of them are somebody’s child.

A guy I met

So, today I met a guy who had some things in common with me or people I know. It was not a comforting experience.

This guy was average height and weight. Polite and kind of quiet. He was disorganized, could not find the papers he needed in his messenger bag. Been there! (About 12 times a day, actually.)

Turns out, this guy also has some pretty common mental health problems. Nothing unusual – depression, anxiety. Been there, too. Do I know anyone who doesn’t have one or the other or both?

And, this guy has recently been hospitalized for his mental health problems. I’ve not had that experience, but I am close to people who have.

Here is where things get uncomfortable: this guy is homeless and penniless. When I met him, he was seeking help to get his prescriptions filled after just being released from the hospital. I started to imagine what the things we had in common would be like if I didn’t have regular health care, a family, a house. I started to imagine people I know who have been hospitalized going home with the meds they need to a safe home and a network of friends and family. And then I imagined them getting out and not having any of that.

There were other people I met today who were trying to get IDs to get a job, or asking for a new pair of shoes, or meeting with a caseworker. These are things that your homeless neighbors do when they are struggling against a mountain of obstacles to climb out of poverty. But what do you do when the urge to climb that mountain is overwhelmed by mental illness?

While I like to think that I can take care of myself, what separates me most from the guy I met today is not what I do to keep myself healthy and safe, but what others do to keep me that way. If I get sick, I have a spouse, a parent, and siblings who will care for me. If I am late getting home, there are a dozen neighbors I can count on to greet my kid at the bus stop. On the few occasions when I have been laid up, there were casseroles and offers to care for my kids and people to run errands and bring flowers.

Even the prayers I get via email and Facebook are more than this guy had. He was utterly alone, devastatingly poor, trying to manage his health with virtually no resources. And he knew it, was nervous about it. How would he get through today? He could barely hold a conversation for the dread.

There is no real way to wrap this post up with a nice lesson learned or happy ending. I don’t know how it ends and I am pretty sure I’ll see another version of it next week. But I do know that in this case, being grateful for what I have doesn’t make me feel any better. Being uncomfortable is an appropriate response to what I know. I am grateful, but no matter how good I’ve got it, there are still too many people out there trying to get through a long, cold night alone in our big, crowded world. Surely, there is enough medicine and friendship and compassion and warmth to spare for them.


Once a week, I volunteer at a center that serves women and men who are homeless or extremely poor. I’ve been involved in one way or another with the place for more than a decade, but I still get surprises every time I go…or maybe not so much surprises as reminders.

The first reminder is that there is no typical homeless person. I saw a man who looked like the stereotype–long hair held back with bandana, unshaved face, raggedy jeans–and another who looked for all the world like a physician, with bifocal glasses, a tweed jacket, and a gentle demeanor.

The second reminder was how generous people who are poor can be. They will pray for you, ask how you are doing, and help their friends in just about any way imaginable. They will tithe out of the paltry sums they get from minimum wage jobs or Social Security checks. Today, as I collected meal tickets, one of the regulars–a woman who carries her tiny dog around in her jacket–gave me a beaded bracelet. I knew better than to turn it down–accepting the generosity of others is a lesson learned early in this business.

a gift to pay forward

The bracelet sat on the desk next to me as I did my work. Just about everyone commented on and admired it. Before I left, I passed it along to another woman at the center that day. She needed a pick-me-up.

The third reminder is that the rules are different for people who live on the streets. They can’t be fully themselves. The woman who reminded me of this spent a good deal of the morning on the phone with a lawyer; she was getting help to keep custody of her kids. She got teary telling me about her situation–and who wouldn’t–but then she said, “No tears. Tears are a sign of weakness. Gangsters don’t cry.” I looked at her; she was not a gangster. “You can’t show weakness on the street,” she said. And, of course, she is right.

The last reminder for today was that shelter is more than a roof over your head. I live in a home that is safe and with people who will care for me if I am sick or in trouble. That is a gift. But it is also a gift to be with people who have very little. It is a cliche that they remind us of how lucky we are. Sure, sure. Being with people in extreme poverty also reminds me of how completely human it is to fear your own vulnerability even as you protect those around you who are vulnerable. The poor folks I have met remind me not only of what I have that sets me apart, but what we all have that brings us together. Sometimes, the people who make up your community are a kind of shelter, too. They give you a place to feel safe and they care for you when you are sick or in trouble. They won’t take advantage if you shed a tear. Sometimes, they will even give you a little bling for no reason at all.