The plan seemed simple enough; as a candidate for employment with a Christian mission, the ministry's director suggested that I pose as a homeless person by passing the night at their emergency shelter on East Jefferson Street. Unknown by the staff workers, I would observe first-hand the treatment provided to homeless men, women and families seeking refuge from the streets and then report my findings to him. What I did not know, though I strongly suspect he already knew, is that I would discover far more about myself than of their operations in downtown Louisville.
At the risk of sounding irreverent, business was good that Saturday evening; people crowded every room and hallway and I wondered if there would be space for me. Almost immediately, a staff worker asked how he might be of help. After explaining my need for a safe place to spend the night, I was handed over to the caseworker on duty.
I immediately liked Wilson. Maybe it was because he looked like a relic from the 1960s. Long hair. Bushy beard. Sandals. Open collar. He listened patiently as I explained my fictitious plight: I had traveled from Lexington to Indianapolis in hopes of employment; unfortunately, the work that had been promised me had not panned out. I had then hitched a ride as far as Louisville and was in need of a place to stay before resuming the trip back to Lexington the following day. All totally untrue, of course, but I soothed my bristled conscious by recalling the Apostle Paul's admonition to Christian believers in showing kindness to strangers as they might unknowingly be entertaining angels from Heaven. As God occasionally sends angels to earth incognito, I reasoned that my posing as a homeless wanderer was equally justifiable. And if there was a chink in my theology, I would handily shift the blame to my new boss.
It is unlikely that Wilson bought my hard luck story in its entirety; a social worker with his high levels of education and experience is not easily deceived, nonetheless, he demonstrated a measure of genuine compassion and concern while bolstering the pitiful remains of my sagging dignity. What seemed to bother him was the manner in which I kept my head lowered during the interviewby this time, I was beginning to feel as though I really was down and out with no place to go. I was miserable with shame and am certain that Wilson recognized this, but in no time at all, we were talking music, politics, family, cabbages and kings in the manner of a couple of old friends meeting over coffee. Never once did I detect even the faintest hint of judgment or, for that matter, the icy chill of cold philanthropy. It appeared to make no difference with Dale that I was sitting on the other side of the desk.
After the initial interview, I found a seat in a dayroom on the second floor. My name was added to a long list of hopefuls waiting for a bed; if no bed became available, I would spend the night on a mat. A few men half-heartedly watched a televised college football game with notable indifference. A couple of other men sitting at a long table talked quietly among themselves; when an uninvited guest sought to join their discussion, they quickly shooed him away. Two bakery cakes waited for takers. Other men milled in and out of the dayroom; a pair of gentlemen from a local church passed out tracts and chatted with anyone willing to listen. One young man sat reading a Bible. A staff worker asked if I wanted something to eat; chicken patties and baked potatoes were being served on the first floor.
I could not help being amused by a congenial young man playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on his cell phone. "Does anyone know how many time zones there are in China?" I struck up a conversation with the Bible reader. Though in his twenties, he looked more like a high school kid. Xavier had grown up in Chicago, preferred working in construction when work was available, and frequently wrote to his mother who was serving a long prison sentence. Xavier was headed for New Orleans. I also learned that Louisville ranked among the best cities for the homeless. "You won't starve in Louisville," he assured me.
The young man playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire? called out, "Does anyone know the capital of New Zealand?"
It was obvious that some of the men had been there long enough to forge friendships. New arrivals like me sat alone. An assortment of men flowed in and out of the dayroom. One young man who had been assigned a bed complained about the heat in the dormitory; his request for a mat in the dayroom was quickly denied. Another young man appeared nearly consumed with frustration in his search for toenail clippers. From time to time, a staff member would announce the availability of a bed, but as the 10 PM deadline approached, it was becoming obvious that several of us would be passing the night on a tile floor.
"Who directed Gone with the Wind?"
As "lights out" neared, a dozen or so men queued up to a pushcart piled high with thin vinyl mats. Another staff member distributed clean sheets while a small crew of the men swept and mopped the dayroom floor. An older gentleman warned me against sleeping too near the open windows. It was to be a cold night.
"What's the speed of light?" I knew the answer. He nodded in approval. "You're the man!"
The vinyl sleeping mats were strategically placed in such a way that allowed for narrow walkways to the door. From what I could see, it appeared as though the dayroom was filled to capacity, though a pair of stragglers joined our tight ranks about an hour after lights out.
A few men dozed off almost immediately while others respectfully conversed in hushed voices. I noted that many of the men removed neither shoes nor street clothing as they crawled onto their mats. I assumed these men feared the risk of losing their shoes to thieves.
"What was the title of Vanilla Ice's first big hit?" Someone in the front row chimed the answer.
In spite of the older gentleman's previous warning, I was grateful for the occasional wisps of cool night air flowing through the open windows. Still, sleep did not come easily. The thin mat provided only a marginal level of comfort against the unforgiving tile floor, but how many of these men, I wondered, had spent long, cold rainy nights in darkened alleys or beneath concrete viaducts? For the true veterans of homelessness, clean sheets and vinyl mats were luxuries.
The young man with the cell phone beamed proudly. "I beat the game! I won a million dollars!" After considering the futility of this imaginary fortune for a moment or so, he laughed saying, "But I would settle for ten real dollars!"
As a light sleeper and one who is unaccustomed to bedding down with a dozen strangers, the night wore on and on. It was the incessant snoring that kept me awake. No hard floor would rob these men of their sleep, but a lifetime of soft living had made me soft; I am uncertain if I slept even an hour.
The day began early; at 5: 45 AM, a staff worker visited each mat with a respectful greeting. I surveyed the room; the waking men appeared lonely and vulnerable as they rubbed the sleep from their eyes. I wondered what it was like being alone and having no home.
I found a spot on a bench outside the dayroom. In less than an hour, my father would arrive and we would soon join my mother around the kitchen table over steaming cups of gourmet coffee topped off with real cream. As I checked my watch, an older gentleman with a rather worn expression parked next to me. I learned that he had arrived at the shelter long after the caseworker had gone off duty; as a result, he passed the night sitting upright in a hard chair. Still, better a hard chair than a hard sidewalk. I watched as he wearily nodded off. The shelter had given him protection from the cold night air. Breakfast would soon be served. In here, he would find safety. He would be cared for.
From that experience, I learned something about the operations of a homeless shelter, but I learned much more about myself. And what I learned about myself did not please me.
Throughout the night, I felt the haunting stigma of shamenot that anyone at the shelter had attempted belittling meit was my own misguided sense of pride and vain self-worth that had made me so uncomfortable. All night and the following morning, I had imagined pitying glances that were never there and whispered comments that were never spoken. In truth, I was ashamed at being numbered among the homeless. I wanted all to know I have a home of my own and a car in the driveway and a diploma on the wall and money in a bank. Come Monday, I will be at the office. See the awards on my desk? I'm somebody!
Yeah, I am someone alright. Someone suffering from an inflated ego. No matter how unintentional, I surely grieved the compassionate heart of our Lord Jesus Christ as I sat on that bench, staring at the floor and feeling terribly out of place, praying for anonymity and hoping not to be noticed.
By the by, was the lesson in humility learned? Two nights later, I fairly bristled when a cashier misidentified my bank card for one of those state issued facsimiles doled out to recipients of welfare benefits. I suspect the matter of killing off this sense of pride will take some time!