Tuesday, March 30, 2010

'My Name is Jerry'

24 hours in the life of a homeless man.


Florida is one of the most visited states of the United States. The ocean breezes mixed with the tropical vegetation make for a picturesque and delightful life for those who choose to vacation or retire in a warm climate. The sounds of the seagulls harmonize with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean as they rush to shore only to escape back to sea in a dance known only to God Almighty.

The sunrise glows against a night sky allowing the naked eye to capture a canvas of colors in shades of red, purple, blue and yellow. Even the palm trees sway as if doing a slow dance on warm Florida’s shores.

To the casual observer, this is paradise. Yet, tucked deep beneath the surface where no eye can see; lays a secret world. The world of the homeless who are forced to live under the stars. I am not blaming the State of Florida for this. Homeless reside in every state. However, due to warm climate; Florida has an abundance of homeless situations.

Personally, I have spent much time visiting with people as they walk their dogs. I am constantly being told of how their dogs or cats were rescued from animal shelters. Programs that allow a person to adopt a stray or rescue an abandoned animal are seen as miracles. I would agree that this is a wonderful outreach for our animal friends.

Yet, people can not be adopted out as animals can. In fact the public sees the homeless in lower esteem than when they see a homeless animal. Often the homeless are judged to be drug addicts and alcoholics who live their lives on the streets because of their own choices. They are blamed for their own circumstances with little or no compassion. Like a stray dog they are run off from place to place and are reduced to begging for scraps of food. We prefer to turn our backs and hold our noses from the stench of these people. I wonder if somehow we have put them in a category of being less than human. Yet, we can’t keep putting our head in the sand thinking this problem will go away.

We can’t throw money at it. Personally, my husband and I are seldom apt to give out money. Addicts won’t buy food. Yet, when we take the time to talk to the person for a while we can tell many things. We learn [because some are glad to talk to someone] that many lost good paying jobs. In some regions 80% of homeless are drug addicts or criminals we have been told. Yet, in the present economy there has been a change.

The road to being homeless is a crooked road. It has many avenues. It could start out with being a run away teen. It could begin from being an addict. Criminals end up homeless many times. Entire families could and have ended up homeless from lack of income. Lack of knowledge in these times of crisis cause many to be homeless, when there are places that could help them. Yet, for some there is no help available.

With the sudden upset in our economy, my husband and I run in to the homeless on a weekly basis. If we go out early in the morning to a convenient store we see someone nearby checking the dumpsters. If we go to the beach on any given day we are approached by someone asking for change. The eyes are empty and usually they won’t
look you straight in the eye. Though they wear rags they also wear a mantle of shame. It’s wrapped around so tight that for some, it is worse than being homeless.

My husband and I don’t have all of the answers and we don’t run any outreach to help this growing situation. We simply walk among the people in any area and seem to be able to talk, pray and listen with people who are just like you and me except they are homeless. We sometimes are able to point them in a direction of help, and usually they let us pray with them. We’ve had some good times sharing a quick lunch at the beach picnic table with a homeless person.

The key word is ‘person’. Won’t you come with me for just twenty four hours and be a silent watcher in the life of Jerry? He’s an average man in his middle ages. It won’t cost you anything to watch and because it is in the written word you won’t even have to smell.

I pray you see what the Lord has allowed us to see. The scene starts out at the beach.

The night air was cool as the man hunkered down in his blankets. He sat leaning against the park bench facing the ocean. The dark waves were coming in fast and striking the sandy beach in ferocious white foam. Slap…shhh….slap…shhh the waves sounded so familiar to the man. It was the music that helped him drift off to sleep. He wore a winter hat with ear flaps that someone had thrown away. It kept his ears warm as he slept. It also kept the bugs away from his ears.

Jerry is one of millions of America’s homeless. He was born in the United States to parents who worked in a factory. He’d quit school at sixteen and worked in the factory. At 21 years old he married and continued in the factory. His wife died of cancer the same year the factory was shut down. He had no pension. He wasn’t skilled in other jobs. He was a little past middle aged.

Most of Jerry’s savings went to care for his wife. His two daughters were grown and gone. Jerry went searching for work and was able to only gain part time employment. Soon, he’d lost his home and everything in it. He went from renting an apartment, to sharing a room, to homelessness. He didn’t do drugs or have a prison record. At times he had no idea how he’d gotten here.

People avoided him during the day because he smelled like a garbage dump. He would go to the showers at the beach but the beautiful sunshine made him sweat during the day. At times he couldn’t find a place safe to sleep except a local empty dumpster. That’s why he smelled. He rinsed his clothes out in the bathrooms and set them on bushes to dry. It had been so long since anyone called him by name that he almost forgot what it was. He sat watching the waves come in and thought of the past. He thought of his wife making chocolate cake for his birthday. He thought of his wife calling him in from the garage for supper. He thought of his two daughters.
Slap…shhh….slap…shh. The man fell asleep. “Jerry, did you lock the door before you came to bed?” His wife turned over and showered him with a hug and kiss. Jerry reached for her but she was gone. It was a recurrent dream. Jerry woke up and it was almost dawn. People would be here to watch the sunrise soon and he’d scare them. Jerry took hold of his plastic bag of belongings and moved on.

His daily routine consisted of going to the mission house for a free breakfast but first he’d go to the beach restroom and wash up. One of the local churches gave out soap and toothpaste. Jerry knew he smelled bad. His wife always poured him a tub full of sweet smelling soap. Jerry had a glandular problem that caused him to smell. Being homeless made it worse. He didn’t blame people for walking away from him. The mean slurs had become a part of life. Once in a while he was beaten by teen age thugs even. He’d lost a few teeth that way.

This morning Jerry went to his usual place for the free breakfast and sat down with his tray of coffee, oatmeal and eggs. The tables were always clean and he was safe there. Jerry could park his two wheel limousine without worrying it would get stolen.

He was early today and had gotten a seat quickly. Sometimes, he’d had to sit on the floor. He didn’t mind when it was a family with small children. In the woods where he lived most of the time, he’d seen many other homeless. Entire families living far below the poverty level that erected tents or just slept outside with children. The woods also had many drugs and crime. Jerry had seen a man knifed to death, for a pair of sneakers.

The hardest thing for Jerry was the times of loneliness. He enjoyed being able to talk at the mission house. He had made several friends on the street. They were like roses in the desert. One such homeless friend was a man named Steven. Steven had shown Jerry the mission home. On Tuesday nights they came and watched a free movie with popcorn. Steven always had a smile and Jerry found himself smiling when they were together. Steven was born healthy but had been dropped on his head. He’d survived surgery but had been left with a very low IQ. He was cared for by his parents until their deaths. He’d gone to special group homes he’d told Jerry. Jerry thought perhaps he’d run away.

Jerry finished eating and offered to stay and help clean up. He took out all the trash every day. Usually, one of the volunteers gave him a few dollars. Today, he’d been slipped a five dollar bill. He quickly hid the money and got on his bicycle. Soon, he was coasting down a country road. A few miles south of the local beaches were an old orange grove. Migrant farmers worked there when the oranges were in season. It was the season for harvest and Jerry knew he could get a few dollars and oranges by helping.

Jerry enjoyed the wind blowing as he rode his bike. The owner of the orange grove drove by and hollered a hello to Jerry. “You come on over, I’ll put you to work!” Jerry told him he was heading that way. Soon, Jerry was pulling oranges off the trees and loading them up along side many others. He saw other homeless families who lived in their cars as well. The children were helping to pick the oranges. It was hot, sticky and buggy! When Jerry was finished he received twenty dollars and twenty or more bug bites but he was happy. It was now almost eight p.m. He had six oranges in his plastic bag and carried it all on his back as he peddled to a fast food restaurant. He took the food to go. He walked past a family who openly held their noses. On his way out someone punched him and said ‘Get outta here you bum!” Jerry barely was able to hang on to his bag of food. He managed to grab everything and peddle to a place to sleep. He reached the beach an hour later. Quickly he ate his food. The punch he’d received earlier was in the stomach. Even after eating he felt the pain.

The public restrooms were locked so he took care of his needs in a wooded area. He walked to the ocean and stood in the water waist deep with his clothes on. He submerged his head and got up again. Soon, he felt the sticky feeling go away. He’d hidden his bike in the bushes and his sleeping spot had gone unnoticed so he chose to sleep there again tonight. He walked over and slipped his wet clothes off while hidden from view. He then put on his one other shirt and pair of sweat pants and hung his wet clothes on some bushes to dry overnight. None of his clothes were what one might call ‘clean’, but Jerry hadn’t smelled fresh laundered clothes in a long time. Then he took out his blanket and settled in with his oranges.

He sat listening to the traffic on the other side of the parking lot. He heard the crickets and frogs. He heard the scurrying of lizards not too far from him. Someone from a condo nearby was on their terrace playing the guitar.

“Make me a blessing, make me a blessing, out of my life…may Jesus shine. Make me a blessing, oh Savior I pray. Make me a blessing to someone today.” Jerry smiled. His wife had been a stickler for going to their little church. In his present way of life, it was the church that had kept him alive. He received food, clothes, and toiletries. Even the orange grove owner was a Christian. He listened as the voice kept singing. It reminded him of his wife’s voice.

Jerry had asked the Lord to be his Savior when he went to church with his wife Gracie. He’d gone to church regularly. When his wife died and the factory went down he had been overwhelmed. He couldn’t think straight. Yet, as he sat there listening to the music he remembered. He prayed. His stomach hurt and he couldn’t get comfortable. He kept praying.

The next morning the police found a dead body on the beach. Pinned to the inside of his clothes was a note. “My name is Jerry. If anything happens to me, my daughter’s name is…..” That note had been carried for 3 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment