Sunday, April 13, 2014

On the Margins

A week ago, I had a strange experience, one I've continued to think about.  I had people over for a backyard cook-out.  One of them had to leave earlier than the rest, so I walked her out front to her car.

A man was staggering down the sidewalk.  My friend and I paused.  I asked, "Are you O.K.?"

From a distance, I had thought he was an elderly man, especially given the stoop and the shuffle.  Up close, I realized he was younger with muscles and tattoos. 

He said, "I really need a ride to the shelter.  I need some water."

I said, "Let me get my friend settled, and I'll get you some water."

I walked my friend to the car and made sure she was good to go.  I went back inside, poked my head out the back, and said to my spouse, "Could you come out front to help me?"  I gave what I hoped was a piercing look.  I grabbed two bottles of water and the cordless phone, and I went back to the front.

I gave the guy the waters, and I said, "Can I call someone for you?"  He gave me the phone number of the shelter.  My spouse came outside and chatted with the guy.

I called the shelter, gave them the details, and they said, "Someone will call you back."  I thought, how strange.  Not:  we'll send someone over to pick up this resident.

We told the guy that someone was coming, and that he was welcome to sit under the shade of our tree.  I asked if he needed food.  He said, "I just ate.  I need a ride."

I said, "Your ride is coming.  I have to get back inside."

I told my friends what had happened, and we discussed what I had done and what I should have done.  One friend commended me for giving him water; she said, "You did all you could do."

Well, no, not really.  I could have given him a ride.  Would I have given him a ride if he was female, and thus, less threatening?  Would I have given him a ride if I still had an old car so that I didn't mind the presence/smell of a homeless guy?

I was into a downward spiral of middle-class guilt when the phone call came.  It was a life skills coach who had been working with the guy.  He said, "We need you NOT to give this guy a ride.  This is his M.O.  He expects everyone to drop what they're doing to tend to his needs, and he needs to learn to plan ahead."

We had a brief talk wherein I learned that the guy has some violent tendencies, especially when people don't help him.  I asked what I should do, and the man on the phone advised me to let him sit until he wandered away.  I felt strange about that, but I did, even though the man at one point stretched out on the sidewalk, and I wondered if I should call an ambulance.

But then, he got up and walked away.

I thought about Jesus and wondered, as I often do, what Jesus would have advised me to do.  I could have invited the man to my backyard cook-out.  I could have given him a ride.  I could have done what I did, so that hopefully he'll learn better life skills.

As in Christ's time, we live in a place and time where there aren't many resources.  There's not a neighborhood detox center where the man can go to pull himself together.  We have no affordable housing in South Florida.  There are very few employers who would be willing to tolerate all the difficult behaviors while offering a shot at redemption.

I gave the man a rest under a tree and some water.  It's much more than some would do, but so little, considering all the needs that the man has.  And this man has some social service workers who are trying to help him, but despite these efforts, he's still in need of all sorts of care.

A week later, I'm still thinking about all of these issues.  I'm no closer to any answers.

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