During the month of February, Go Headquarters shifted its charity initiative to the homeless community. This got me thinking about the countless run ins I've had with homeless ones in our city over the years. The meaning of homelessness varies by location. This post examines the subject as the ongoing state of not having a permanent place to live (house/apt) that is safe and sufficient. What do the homeless experience that most may be unaware of?
Our historic district is stunning. Taking walks through signature sites like the Plaza de la Constitucion, Aviles St, the Castillo, the Bridge of Lions - never lose their luster. Something that also marks a day exploring downtown St. Augustine is the sight of homeless ones or those who pan handle. It's a heart breaking sight. We're all susceptible to unforeseen events that can drastically change our lot in life from one day to the next. What could plunge a once apparently stable working life into one of daily uncertainty about where to find basic necessities like meals and a shower? This is an intriguing question. In some cases, natural disasters, domestic violence, and mental illness have caused their victims to become homeless.
To be sure, it is easy to encounter the homeless outside of city limits. They may wait at off ramps of I-95 and busy shopping plazas like Cobblestone Village. My heart goes out to the suffering of those who are unsure of where they will spend the night, especially in times of extreme weather. My empathy has been exploited at times, but I hope that in most cases, the little I've been able to do in assistance of someone in need has made a positive difference. It's often said that we remember how people make us feel more than the words they say. Homeless or not, being treated with dignity is appreciated.
I remember having an in depth conversation with a homeless man named Victor* at Pizza Time on St. George Street some years ago. He stood behind the line of customers greeting each with a friendly smile. He tried to strike up conversations. I got the sense that he hoped eventually someone would offer to buy him a meal. We sat down at a table and managed to connect briefly. I remember shaking hands about five times during a conversation that probably lasted 10 minutes.
He told me part of his story: living in Tarpon Springs, FL and enjoying ownership of a successful business. Unforeseen economic events snowballed to the point that he became displaced and lost most of his possessions. He almost brought me to tears at one point in our conversation, asking..."I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, do you think God can ever forgive me?" His eyes welled up with tears though none ran down his face. I tried to reassure him that I could never be the judge of such a weighty personal matter. Coincidentally, we had discussed the subject of mercy at my worship meeting that very week. I chose to share some scriptural examples of God's mercy with him.
I felt regret after we parted ways because I didn't buy him anything to eat. So I went back into Pizza Time and bought a box of garlic knots and searched for Victor. I didn't find him. I remember leaving the box next to a trash bin hoping that someone in need would find it.
In researching where the homeless seek shelter, I found that they often live under bridges, in wooded homeless camps (inside densely forested areas), or even in abandoned cars. Regarding homeless camps, The St. Augustine Record reported that it's hard to discern how many exist in our community. These hidden camps have opened residents up to dangers including physical assault, attacks from wild animals and murder.
I recently met a homeless woman while walking down Granada Street. Until she told me she was homeless, I was unaware. She was waiting for the Sunshine Bus. She was young - still in her 20s. We had a few minutes to talk and she shared with me that St. Augustine has several resources for the homeless community. However, she and her homeless peers (two of which were also waiting for the bus) prefer to independently sustain themselves through other means. Though appreciative of free housing and shelters, she doesn't like what she views as the lack of freedom that comes with some of the facilities that provide services. She feels overly restricted by certain rules and prefers not to be treated like a child - being told when to come and go or what to do and not to do. She knows where showers are available and has made her own travel arrangements. The day we met, she was heading to Hastings. The bus she was waiting for came before I had a chance to ask her more about her daily challenges and experiences. I would have loved to discuss her day to day life more.
This subject is compelling. It would be enriching to continue to gain a deeper understanding of what it truly means to live as the homeless do. Do you have any insights to share?
*Name has been changed