WALKING A MILE IN RAGS AND TATTERED SHOES

For one night of my life, I was homeless. 
It is a story I have never told publicly, and out of fear, only told my parents within the last year or so. I had no idea how they’d take it. 
But as an 18 year old freshman at the University of Colorado, for one bitter, unforgettable night, I, too, spent a night on the streets of Denver, Colorado. As a naïve and sheltered kid who grew up in the suburbs, it was an eye-opening experience of a problem I had only ever experienced from afar. 
Like so many, I spent my childhood with a lot of preconceptions, some true, some not, about homelessness. Even as a teenager, when I spent two summers commuting by bus to my job at the baseball stadium, they were people I would cross the street to avoid. 
They were the “faceless” individuals in tattered clothes with hands out for help, or huddled in shame and despair in the corners. They are out there, in more places than you realize, and the “problem” most “cosmopolitan” cities would like to legislate out of existence. 
And like most, as a teenager working in the city, they scared me. I thought they were all shiftless alcoholics and drug addicts who simply panhandled, waiting to take advantage of people, wanting things from “civilized” folks they were too lazy to work for themselves. 
Then, one early winter night, my perspective changed. 
Twenty-odd years later, I still do not have a great understanding of why I chose to try this. I was studying homelessness for a speech class, but really, how many people want to get this close to a problem they could simply read about, or as a budding journalist, just interview people about? 
Maybe it was the depression I battled, and the overwhelming stress of my unfamiliar college environment which would later cause me nearly to drop out.  Or maybe it was the fact that I was a loner in a social environment, with almost no real friends. 
I don’t know why. 
But something inside me triggered the idea I would take a bus the 30 or so miles from my college campus in Boulder to the 16th Street Mall, a high-end, blocks long shopping district in Downtown Denver and spend a night on the streets. 
The night was what you’d expect from Denver as winter approached. It was clear, but the wind cutting in between the skyscrapers of the city was brutal. I’d guess the overnight temps were in the 30’s, but the wind cut through my light jacket, sweatshirt and jeans like a kitchen knife through melted butter. And as the sun disappeared from the streets, it only got worse. 
Early in the evening, I recall spending time in one of the bookstores to just to pass the time, but even then, I felt a deep, impending sense of fear and despair, knowing eventually the stores would close, the shoppers would head home, and as the last buses would leave downtown for the night, I would have no place left but the cold streets. 
When this inevitable moment came, I walked 16th Street, looking for a place to at least partially shelter myself from the brutal cold. I found a store font that sat probably 20-30 feet below ground level, climbed the stairs down, and hid. 
In one sense, I was hiding myself from the weather, hoping the protection would dampen the bitter chill, at least a little. It didn’t. But in another sense, I was hiding out from the world above, trying my hardest not to be seen, protecting myself from the world above. In my loneliness and despair, I really was trying to be faceless. 
The area I was camped out was well lit, so to take my mind off my situation, I pulled my Bible out of my bookbag and read through the entire Gospel of John – all 21 chapters in one night.  
Once the exhaustion set in and I could not fight it off anymore, I set my bag on the ground, full of books, and tried to sleep, but a bag full of textbooks makes a terrible pillow, and that, combined with the mixture of fear, hopelessness, and despair, made sleep fitful at best. With all the hypothetical horrors I could face racing through my mind, I am not sure I actually slept at all. 
So, giving up on sleeping out of the cold, somewhere between one and two in the morning I sought out the lobby of a high-end hotel at one end of the strip. I hoped to get a couple hours rest and shelter from the cold, so I went in and tried to stretch out on a large circular couch sitting in the lobby. 
Predictably, once I was noticed, I was kicked out. I was told by the desk clerk in no uncertain terms I could not stay there if I was not a guest at the establishment. Again, no place to go. 
Beyond this point, the rest of the night is a little bit of a blur. I was weary, sleepless, cold, and for most of the night, terrified. I had slept little, if at all, and had not eaten probably since before I left Boulder late in the afternoon. I had no money with me, so I had no way to eat. 
Eventually, the sun came up, the people returned, and I hopped a bus back to school, albeit with a vastly different perspective on homelessness than I had left with the night before. 
What I had done for one night, I tried to imagine what it must be like for this to be this life to be a harsh daily reality. I had a home to return to, but for those who called the streets of Denver home, there was no four walls to protect them from the cold weather and cold realities of the street. 
Armed with the eye-opening experience, I dug in to learning more about the realities of homelessness, to understanding what drives it, and to take a hard look at what the face of homelessness really looks like. 
And the picture is a far different, far more diverse one than I think most of us in our sheltered worlds, might ever realize. It would not be overstating it at all to say the first hand knowledge I gleaned changed the trajectory of my life, and deepened my understanding of the gospel in ways I could never have imagined. 
What I discovered are there are very real faces to the faceless problem we push into the shadows. Here’s a short glimpse of some of them: 
  • There’s the star athlete whose body is so bruised and broken and battered by the rigors of their trade that painkillers become the only way to numb the constant, excruciating pain, a dependence that costs them everything. 
  • There’s the teenage runaway born into a life of abuse and addiction, far from home with nowhere to turn, so she becomes a commodity, sold into servitude to satisfy the greed and secret pleasures of men who care nothing for who she is, but everything for what she can do to satisfy their desires. 
  • There’s the veteran with a battered body and tormented mind for whom the horrors never ended. Physically he can no longer provide for himself, and the moment-by-moment torment of his memories drives him to find any escape he can from the demons in his head. 
  • Then there’s the family with young children. Daddy lost his years-long job when his company downsized and his skills were not “marketable” enough, and the flood of the bills left the family drowning until the bank took the house, leaving his family living out of a van, wandering from place to place. 
  • There’s the fleeing mom and kids desperately trying to escape the life and the cycle of physical and emotional abuse. Trying to protect herself and her children, she runs in desperation during the night with almost no belongings, and often no income, to her name. Where else does she turn? 
It’s a problem that encompasses and ensnares every race, gender and creed, and can grip any rung of the socioeconomic ladder. It takes a lot less than most of us think. 
If we have not walked a mile in these tattered shoes, it becomes easy to dismiss these stories, and to tell ourselves, “they could leave that life if they wanted to, all they have to do is get off their butts and a little harder.” 
But for those trapped in the cycle, the answers are far more complex. How many employers are going to hire someone who walks in for an application with no home address, and only rags on their backs? And in many places, my hometown included, a job flipping burgers or cleaning hotel rooms is not going to keep a roof over your head with skyrocketing rent and utilities. 
And this is where my view of the gospel of Jesus Christ changed. 
I go back to that night and the Gospel of John. When He tells us to love “the least of these”, when he tells us to show compassion to our neighbor, when he tells us to reach out a hand to the poor, despairing, the fatherless, I think what we see are faces like this. 
The faces we push into the shadows – the ones we turn a blind eye to – are exactly the ones Jesus came to seek and save. These are the prodigals he embraces, these are the lost sheep the shepherd leaves the flock to save. 
Just like He did for broken sinners like you and me. He has saved us all from something, pulled us out of the torrent when we were in over our heads and drowning. Jesus has rescued us all from some darkness we were not strong enough to pull ourselves out of, and paid debts for us we could never have paid ourselves. 
So when I look at the face of homelessness, I see real people with real faces real problems and real pain, faces in desperate need of the love and compassion of Jesus shown to them in not just in words, but in very hands-on, tangible ways.  
I see faces in need of Jesus’ love, just like me. 
This is what the gospel really is – carrying Jesus’ love into the shadows, into the bleakest corners of the world where so few of us ever real dare to go – the shelters, the streets, the prisons  - to bring hope to the despair that lives right in our own backyards. 
To truly understand what the love of Jesus did for us.... 
...maybe we all need to walk a mile in a pair of tattered shoes. 

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