The darkness was pierced only by a tiny ray of light, through dense, dark blue clouds of smoke. The haze stung my nose. The acrid smoke caused tears to run down my face. I was peering into a thick, dark cloud of smoke. I say the tiny light shinning through it as if to find some rescue of escape. I heard his groan. Bill called out in a weak, wimpy voice…”Who is it”? I responded, “It is Jack”. Bill told me to come in, while he pointed the tiny flashlight at the floor so I could navigate through the maze of empty cans of food and abandoned milk jugs. Here I was again, starring into the face of desperate hope. I offered very little, but I asked “Are you ready to go?”
I met Bill quite by accident doing Outreach for our church. When we went door-to-door, I often looked for the invisible people in the community who needed help with food, shelter services and clothing more that a Bible-thumper. I had seen a tiny spiral of grey smoke coming out of my first cousins back yard and peeked around the corner of his house. What I found was a tiny, beat up pull-over camper shell that had looked like it has barely survived another of our Kansas tornadoes. Out of the top vent was a tiny wisp of grey smoke. I had my suspicions and they were confirmed after I tapped on the door. I only heard silence but I had noticed the camper shell had moved. I knew there was someone inside. I said, “Hello, this is Jack, from the Baptist Church. Are you okay?”
I repeated my question and said, “This is Jack. My cousin Rick lives here. Are you okay in there”? Finally, a tiny crack in the camper door opened and out looked a man who appeared like he had never seen a barber or razor and his face was almost jet black. But it was from soot that he had acquired from his make-shift fire that he used to heat his “home” during the cold Kansas winter nights. He sheepishly told me that Rick said he could set his camper shell here if he didn’t use the plug in and that he would stay in the back yard. I realized that this man, Bill (as I call him, protecting his real name out of respect for him) was homeless and later discovered that he had no electricity, no water, no heat and no food, save about 1/5th of a bottle of Grape jelly.
I repeated who I was and asked him if I could help him with anything. He was suspicious at first but then he recognized me when he pointed his penlight flashlight at my face. “Jack…Jack Wellman.” He remembered me from school, but I didn’t know who it was. I only saw long, stringy unkempt hair, dark and dirty skin and bloodshot eyes. He told me his name. “Bill, Bill….Bill Berry!?” I asked. He responded, “Yeap”. I could not believe it was Bill. We had worked together for the city mowing lawns in the summer after our junior year in high school. We later became friend and he was one of my friends at my wedding. He was one of the groomsmen. He was a bosom buddy who I had not seen for 7 years. I remember that when he got out of the military several years ago and we had lost track of each other. You know how life goes on and suddenly you look up and 10 years have passed, just like that!
That’s how my journey with this homeless man began. It created in me a desire, not to just witness to people about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but to make the Gospel one of providing for those who can not provide for themselves. Like Bill, most people became homeless from things beyond there control. For him, his vehicle broke down, and frequent repairs sent his finances spiraling downward. He eventually lost his job because he was not always able to get to work. His plummeting finances cause his marriage to dissolve. His broken marriage had removed him from the love of his life. Now he had nothing, short of a camper shell, an almost empty jelly jar, and some sticks of wood that he used to make a stove out of an old, beat up pan that had been tossed in the trash. To most citizens, they are naked to the eye; they are the invisible people that we know are there. They are just not seen. I have ways of finding them. I try to think, if I was homeless, where would I go, and that is where I find them. Sometimes by mistake, sometimes I intentionally look for them.
Here is my typical results from trying to help Bill and has been repeated more often that I care to admit. I drove Bill over to the county seat to visit the SRS. I had to help him fill out the application because he had lost his glasses. We went in today for some emergency G.A. cash relief. The state of Kansas had a 6 week waiting period since the state itself is undergoing its own form of financial depravity. The tax delinquency rate for our county had soared to 13% and people were and still are today, losing their jobs and as a consequence, their homes. So we had to settle for today for $193 dollars in food stamps for the next month. He had a disability too, so we tried to apply for Social Security benefits. The next open interview appointment was not for six weeks and even then he would only qualify for $490 a month. His first check would not arrive, due to the overwhelmed Social Security office, for 10 weeks. They were that far behind in processing applications.
I had to rent him a P.O. Box at the Post Office, since they required a mailing address. I checked with the nearest homeless center in Wichita, Kansas, which had opened up an expanded facility about 9 months ago. Unfortunately it was at capacity, with 24 other ahead of him in waiting. We are also tried to get him a Medicaid card since he has a disability from a car accident when he hit a farmer’s cow and the farmer refused to help him fix his car. Every attorney I had spoken with say the courts in Kansas cattle country almost always rule in favor of farmers and that he would have to prove negligence on the farmers part and so we could find no attorney willing to even take the case. Plus they wanted a $500 deposit which neither of us had. Depressed and sullen, we returned home from the SRS to my house. There at least he could take a hot shower, I could do his laundry and let him eat a good, hot meal.
I have exhausted all possible sources the last two weeks leaving no stone unturned. His family will not help, I checked all landlords, city, three low-income housing duplexes, 14 different members of his family. His family included his step-brother, four first cousins, his step-sister, his aunt….no one wanted him. He eventually stayed with us for a while, but we had little room and few resources, and when my work shift changed, my wife and I were hesitant to allow him to stay there with my wife and young daughter there. Plus I was caring for three of my grandsons while their mother, my daughter-in-law worked during the afternoon.
I have repeated this process with others too. Darrel, Steve, Chad, (real names withheld to respect their privacy…we live in a really small town and county). My journey took me back to where I had begun. I had not solved the problem. Just put a temporary band-aid on a growing cyst. A problem that was spreading throughout the county and really the state and nation. Homeless villages are popping up everywhere in this nation of ours. They are camp towns of homeless people. The overburdened social services and homeless centers have been overwhelmed. I am only one man. But if I can help one person, then at least it is one more person that has a chance to survive. During this process, I never shoved my religion down their throats. Forced religion on an empty stomach makes people sick. But feed them, cloth them, shelter them and provide for them…is the Gospel. Jesus feed the hungry, healed the sick, but even He was overwhelmed at times.
We can help those who can not help themselves. Donate to your local charities, to local homeless shelters, feed them hot meals with volunteers when you can, gather clothes at work, your church or your community. The number of homeless people is growing exponentially. They are invisible to most people because they find places out of the public eye. Wouldn’t you? You can not help them all, but you can help some. And if there are enough people who have this same passion, then we can at least help some. Jesus said, when you do it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it to Him. And they could be us. There go I but by the grace of God. Some have even told me, “Well, they made their own bed, now let them lie in it”. Invisible people to most, but most visible to God and to some few people. If they only know where to look.
As I took Bill back to his camper shell, I told him I would be back. We both sat there, wiping away tears in his tiny little home. Were the tears from the acrid smoke still left over from his “heating system” or from a broken system? The safety net has failed. He disappeared again, in his tiny little home. Invisible to most everyone; everyone that is except God, and a few other people.