This past week, the Bush administration touted that there was a 30 percent drop (from 175,914 in 2005 to 123,833 in 2007) in the number of "chronically homeless" people in the nation — those who are unaccompanied, disabled and have been homeless for longer than one year.
I have my differences with the Bush administration, but credit needs to be given where credit is due. It is a step in the right direction that 50,000 more "chronically homeless" (of the roughly 750,000 total homeless in the U.S.) are off the streets, out of shelters and in secure environments. (Not counted here are those recently affected by the swell of foreclosures — 739,714 filings in the second quarter of 2008 alone.)
In particular, the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Philip Mangano, should be commended for leading communities across the country to develop plans for reducing homelessness. Also very helpful are the community outreaches by Rolling Thunder and other groups that are extending their helping hands to homeless veterans.
I’m not writing this column to propose some one-size-fits-all homeless solution. I’m writing it because I thought, even though Congress left on a five-week hiatus without helping us with our energy (gas) crisis, I want to encourage Americans not to follow suit and turn a blind eye to the needs of others around us — even on vacation. I realize that caring for the homeless in particular can often be complicated, and we never should jeopardize our safety in doing so. But we can’t allow complications or even callousness to stop our compassion. Let me give you a recent example of how my family was reminded of that.
For part of our summer vacation, we spent a few days at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, in California. One night, on the way back to our hotel, we passed three homeless men. One of them said to our 6-year-old twins, "Wait, I have something for you." Of course, our kids know not to talk or receive things from strangers. But I saw warmth in his eyes, so we walked over to him. The man said he had some coupons to ride the rides. But after rummaging through his pockets, he came up empty-handed. I thanked him for his offer, and we walked on.
Back at the hotel, our daughter, Danilee, said she would like to draw him a picture. But it was too dark and late to be running around the city looking for him. When we went to bed that night, we prayed together, and our kids prayed for him. As the kids slept, my wife, Gena, and I talked and concurred, "There was something different about this man — this encounter."
Walking to breakfast the next morning, to our surprise, we passed the same homeless gentleman. His eyes and smile showed that he remembered us. I only wished I had encouraged Danilee to draw the picture the night before. Gena later told me she prayed silently, "Oh, Lord, give us one more chance to give him that picture."
At the restaurant, the waitress brought my kids some crayons and paper. Danilee drew two beautiful angels overlooking her and this man walking side by side. And our son, Dakota, drew three crosses. The kids asked whether we could buy him breakfast — which we did, even though we didn’t know whether we would see this sojourner again. When we looked for him, there was no sign of him anywhere. We had only one more chance to meet him in the morning before we had to leave Santa Cruz.
After breakfast the next morning, Gena noticed two men walking at a distance around a corner near a covered bus stop. As we got closer, a familiar face came into view, and we all smiled. We told him that we’d been looking for him for two days. The kids told him about the breakfast that never made it to him the day before and that now we brought him some iced tea. Then they gave him the pictures they drew. He was obviously deeply touched.
What happened last still sends shivers up my spine. Without recognizing who I was, he stuck out his hand and respectfully introduced himself, "My name is Alan." His few words nearly took our breath away because Gena’s father’s name was also Alan, and he also had a very similar gentle and kind demeanor, but her father had passed away six months earlier and still is missed so dearly. Just before we walked away, Dakota handed him the iced tea we brought. After he sipped it, he exclaimed: "A-a-ah, sweet tea. I love sweet tea!" To which Gena softly replied, "So did my dad." I thought, "I don’t think it’s a coincidence today that Santa Cruz means ‘Holy Cross’ in Spanish."
God spoke to us that summer day. Heaven sent a big sign through what might seem like a relatively small encounter. And it can serve as a reminder to us all — one that’s also in the Good Book: "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."