written by Nate Smith
When we see the homeless, usually our first response is to avoid them. Don’t make eye contact, don’t acknowledge them, and everything should be fine. If for some reason, an interaction can’t be avoided, give them spare change and keep moving. But when you see 10,000 homeless people on the streets of Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles you begin to think otherwise. You feel and see their pain, their struggles, their loneliness. When you set foot into a place like Skid Row, it’s easy to forget what was so important in your life and start wondering how to help these other lives.
I first met Jay in October 2009. He was standing outside the VOA (Volunteers of America center) and struck up a conversation with me while my wife was using the bathroom. Jay was quick to tell me that he grew up in the home of an addicted mother in Las Vegas. His siblings had been placed with foster parents, most of which he no longer knew their whereabouts. He came to Los Angeles for a new start.
Jay instantly began explaining his feelings toward a “loss of identity.” I asked him to share more and he told me that he had no ID, no birth certificate, no social security card. Everyone he had approached to help him with this issue had denied him. He felt like he had no reason to live, no one cared about his life and identity. “If I died tomorrow,” he explained, “no one would even know who he was.” Jay was 20 years old, had no money, and possessed only the clothes on his back. As we talked more, my heart broke for this young man. Jay was experiencing what I imagine most homeless people go through, the frustration of not having the simplest of possessions; an drivers license and birth certificate. And now I was the next person to hear his plea for help. Would I go on with my life and pray that the next person he met would help him? Or would I put his life first, before mine?
Having just met him, I decided it was important to begin the process of finding his identity. So we set up a time to meet later that week, to go get his birth certificate. When that day arrived, we met up and literally walked 2 or 3 miles to the nearest Government office to get his birth certificate. But after a lot of patience and paperwork they told Jay he was not in their system. He broke down in tears in front of me, saying, “I know I exist.” We ended up walking the 2 plus miles back to Skid Row, frustrated.
It’s not easy spending your whole day with an anxious homeless person who’s desperate for help. I know this. That’s why most people would rather not get involved. Helping people is not always easy (in fact it’s usually draining and sometimes frustrating). But we as believers in Christ, “Christians” are not your average slackers. Christ showed me patience, so what if I have to spend another day with Jay?
The next day my wife and I drove him to the courthouse in Norwalk. In 15 min., we walked out with a copy of his birth certificate. You should have seen the smile on Jay’s face. I looked at my watch and saw that we had 30 minutes until the DMV closed. With the success of his birth certificate in play, I decided to “let it ride” as we drove to get his drivers license. It was closing time we we arrived, but we got his license too!
Over the next few months Jay and I became close friends. Since I work with the homeless in Skid Row each day, i would continually see him. We enjoyed talking about video games, sports and Jay’s plans for the future. His newly obtained drivers license told me he was turning 21 soon. I decided to take him out for his birthday. Imagine what it must be like to be homeless, and have no family…and then imagine all that on your birthday. Jay loved video games and I knew the perfect place.
So a few weeks ago the Enoch Magazine crew took Jay and his girlfriend to Nickel Nickel in Huntington Beach. For those of you who don’t know Nickel Nickel is an arcade where all the games cost a nickel or 2 (i.e. “nickel nickel”). Jay was so excited. Over the next 3 hours we played air hockey, won tickets and challenged each other on every game in the arcade. I knew the time spent would cause him to miss his shelter curfue, so that night we put both Jay and his girlfriend up in a hotel. His birthday celebration would continue as we ordered pizzas to the room and watched TV. The room also offered a fresh and the opportunity to sleep in, (which is extremely rare the homeless world).
The last few weeks Jay and his girlfriend had been living in the shelter. Each day, around 3pm, they wait in line for a bus, where by they are picked up, given a bed, dinner, and then returned to the street the following morning at 5 am. Jay says the shelter smells like body odor and piss. A good night’s sleep is nearby impossible with all the homeless fighting, yelling and trying to steal your stuff. Try to imagine the daily struggles Jay faces: sleeping on the streets for weeks, fighting for placement in shelters, waking up with an empty stomach and no money. To make a difference in lives of the homeless you must invest. People must see the homeless as real people that God created individually. They come from families, they have personalities and they have dreams. And yes, in many cases, the homeless tend to have addiction issues or mental issues; maybe they haven’t been given a fair chance like you and I. But the next time you see a homeless person, remind yourself that you are the hands and feet of Christ. Bless them with a hug. Learn their name. Jesus always tended to the true needs of a person. The next time God puts a homeless person in your path, I encourage you to seek out the true needs of that person. Take a step of real faith, use discernment and step into the world of serving others. Christ calls us in Luke 9:23 “to take up his cross daily” and live like him. If you can’t love the homeless like you love your family then maybe you need to remember that we are all part of the family of God.