Bill has always said I can make a friend anywhere. Usually I have no problem striking up a conversation with a total stranger, but for months I have wondered about the stories behind some of our local “sign holders,” and have been too afraid to approach.
They appeared a few years ago, out of the blue it seemed. Along a major highway in our area, at every intersection. Different people, all the time. I hardly ever saw any one person twice. We all wondered what was going on. Were they drug dealers disguised as homeless? We’re they just looking for easy money? Did they work in shifts? It couldn’t be legitimate, so we drove on. As the weather got worse, they dwindled in numbers.
It has eaten away at me since the beginning. It breaks my heart. I want to help. When we lived in Shanghai, we were told to be careful of the beggars. They make more money begging than working, so that is what many do, hanging around areas where westerners live. Regardless of this warning, I used to give a handicap gentleman in Shanghai money when I passed him. He never asked, but I knew he needed it. He was sweet. He always smiled and said hello, even on the days that I didn’t give him anything. I enjoyed our little interactions, which were limited by the language barrier.
When we were on vacation in Chicago, my daughter, at the age of 8, had the compassion to give a homeless guy outside of the Disney store, a few dollars of her allowance. When we were in Washington D.C., my fourteen year old son asked if we could buy a homeless guy a sandwich and drink at Starbucks, which we did, and the oldest son volunteered at a food bank during his senior year of high school. We often give to charities for the needy. We have taught our children to give to the less fortunate, yet I kept passing them by on the street.
Lately, there has been a gentleman standing by a local church. A beautiful church, which was recently deemed a minor basilica by Pope Francis. He is almost always there. His sign says “Family Hungry, Need Job, Do Anything. ” Carleigh and I gave him a dollar once when we were sitting at the light, but it is on a major street, so there is no time for chatting. He is out there in any weather. In below zero temperatures, biting wind, and blowing snow. This made me believe that he must really need the help, as it is only the diehards I see out there now. The same people, all the time. Today I decided to take him a hot chocolate, and talk with him. As I turned the corner to park, I saw he was smoking. I had a judgemental moment. He was buying cigarettes with money he could use for something else. I almost left, but I didn’t. I’m so glad I stayed.
His name is Steve, and he is 60 years old. He is Catholic, and occasionally attends mass at the church which he stands by. He rents a room about 25 minutes from the corner, and takes the bus to get there. He has two children. A fourteen-year-old daughter, who according to him, is just beginning to blossom, and a twelve-year-old son. They live with his ex-wife, and mother-in-law about a half hour away from where he is standing, in the opposite direction from where he lives. He sends money to his mother-in-law for the kids, as he says his ex-wife is not trustworthy. He visits when he can. He appeared to choke up a little as he told me that his kids do not know he stands on a corner.
He grew up on the east side of Detroit, and is a florist by trade. He worked in his parent’s flower shop on the corner of Jefferson and Alter. When the area started deteriorating, and they were robbed, they closed down. His parents are now both deceased. He took care of his mom for the last six years of her life.
His most recent job was as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, but it closed 8 months ago. He is always looking for work. He just applied for two more jobs. He said he has found jobs standing on that corner, or the other one he uses two miles south. He takes day jobs that people offer him until he finds something more permanent. He is trying to get enough money to pay his room rent.
After about 10 minutes of chatting, he tell me he has to get back to “work.” He doesn’t want to miss a job opportunity. I gave him five dollars and told him good luck and God Bless, that it was nice to meet him. Then I left him there. Standing on the corner of “Hope” and “Faith,” holding a sign, repeating the Rosary over and over in his head. Looking for a break, but not giving up.