Someone referred to one of my favorite bloggers as a "filthy bum" last week. The blog author said that after his initial surprise, he decided it wasn't a bad thing.
I have heard street people referred to as bums on more than one occasion. Although homeless is the more charitable and politically correct way to refer to a person who lives on the streets, there are those who persist in their ways.
Last week, we parked the car on the streets of a high-crime neighborhood so we could avoid paying $14 to put it in a garage. As I exited the car with a large bouquet of flowers in my arms, a homeless man strode up to us, addressing his remarks to my husband.
"Sir, you are a lucky man to have that lady with you. I hope you treat her the way she deserves".
I knew what was coming next, and call me a sucker, because I reached into my pocket before he had a chance to say another word and buried a few dollars in my hand where they could not be seen.
The man walked next to us and began his tale of woe, but in a voice so hopeful and pleasant, it was hard to believe he could be down on his luck.
"I'm a homeless vet", he told us, "and there are a lot of us on the streets. I've been messed up ever since I came back from that war. I lost my home and I never did find a job when I came back, but I ain't gonna lose my soul."
He was very clean and except for worn clothes, a shaggy beard and no teeth, he could have easily passed as someone employed and with a house and a family to go home to. The war to which he referred was clearly Vietnam, as we later learned our escort was in his sixties.
I told him he was one of the cleanest homeless people I'd ever met, and it wasn't meant to reflect doubt on his story. I've known a few homeless people who managed to keep themselves immaculate. Some years back, my friend Eddie, who lived in the subway system of Philadelphia, told me there is no excuse for homeless people to "go around stinkin' like dirty bums." He reminded me that "cleanliness is next to Godliness" and with the right motivation and ingenuity it was entirely possible to stay clean.
Our friend told us that he often used the money he panhandled to wash his blankets and his clothes at the laundromat. He said diabetes limited what he could eat, especially with no insulin available to him, so he didn't always spend what he begged on food.
It was a bitterly cold day with the wind whipping everything in sight at 30 mph or more. We asked the man if he could direct us to our destination and he offered to walk with us. He said he was hoping to buy some rice for dinner from one of the street vendors. I pressed the money into his palm and a look of shock crossed his face.
"I wasn't going to ask you for anything." Then he said "God bless you" about fifty times. He got us to our destination and the dark side of me wondered if he would return to our car to try to break into it. As if I had wondered this out loud, he said he didn't understand street people that break into people's cars. "Just cos you're down on your luck don't give you the right to bust somebody's window. If you're lucky, you find 75 cent on the seat and it costs the driver $80 bucks to fix it. "
We said our goodbyes, and I could still hear him saying "God bless you" as we walked up the steps. Was he for real? Who knows?
I have to tell you that I was in my glory walking down the street next to that man. I've always had an affinity for those with no place to lay their head. I've had a few homeless friends over the years but then lost track of them. I hope the reason I haven't seen Eddie is because he got a job and a place to live. I hope the reason I haven't seen Tom-Tom and his faithful dog Queenie is because he moved on to another town, and not because he lost his life. My friend Nate is still around, doing much better than when I first found him but still unable to make it entirely on his own.
The truth is that at no time do I feel closer to the Lord than when I'm in the company of those men who have nowhere to lay their heads or call home. I feel that every so often, He chooses to grace me with His Presence in the distressing disguise, as Mother Teresa would say, of the poor.
Until it got too risky and I got extremely lazy, I used to hand out care packages to the homeless. I would pack little brown shopping bags with a lunch, change of socks and underwear and some toiletries like disposable wash cloths and tooth brushes and discreetly hand them out to those who looked like they needed them.
One day, I had one bag left over and try as I might, I saw no one to whom I could give it. I walked a few blocks out of my way to find someone, with no luck. Then I passed a Burger King and saw a shivering shaggy man standing outside, no coat, no socks and no luck. He wasn't begging for money because he didn't have to. His eyes pleaded for anyone to take pity on him in any way possible. I watched for awhile as person after person went into the restaurant without so much as a casual glance at this downtrodden man. I quietly walked up and took his hand and hooked the last care package over it, telling him there was something to eat inside. He looked inside the bag, took a few of the items out, and cried. So did I, because the Lord saw fit to humble Himself in this way for me to serve Him in one of the least of His creatures. As St Therese might have said, I wished the Lord wouldn't know it was me because I did not want Him to feel bound to repay me.
Why don't I do more of this? The truth is, because I am a lazy bum who can't work up the energy anymore to make even the most minimal effort to help other people. I often say that if I hit the lottery, I would spend the money helping others.
God bless those who don't wait until they strike it rich to help the less fortunate.