Editor’s Note: The purpose of this piece is to shed additional light on the problem of homelessness in Kansas City AND to show the power of AA, God, and the United Methodist Church (Church of the Resurrection, specifically) to reclaim an individual from the scrapheap of life and put them to use serving others.
By Jason Miller, 2/7/18
Because of my Bipolar Disorder, addictions, and tumultuous life, a life in which I have cut my own hamstring on numerous occasions-putting me in highly precarious emotional, financial, and physical situations, I have always felt that homeless people were kindred souls to me. This despite the blessing that homelessness, aside from couch surfing from one family member/friend’s home to another, was never one of my struggles. Not yet anyway.
A couple of years ago, I was blessed to serve many homeless individuals by taking a weekly AA meeting to a 5 day detox facility for three years. Many of the patients and returning out-patients there were, or had been, homeless.
By God’s grace I have had the opportunity to volunteer in homeless shelters and soup kitchens at various times throughout my life.
As long as I can remember, and have been intellectually aware enough, the fact that homelessness exists in the world’s wealthiest nation has troubled me deeply. It can be nothing else but a grave moral defect, born of abject greed and selfishness. So few have so much. While so many have so little.
But in the bastion of capitalism, one dare not ask such questions. As the tireless advocate for the poor of Latin America, Dom Helder Camara, once stated, “When I give bread to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.”
So on 2/6/18, I shelved my questions and set out to find the poor in Kansas City who not only had no bread, but no home. Bearing in mind that in 2016 there were 566,000 homeless people in the US, one third of whom suffered from serious mental illnesses, I set out to find MY people. And to treat them like human beings. Instead of looking away or walking by them with callous disregard. Or perhaps even going so far as to chastise them for not “having a job.” I set out to follow my spiritual mentor’s suggestion and engage them in conversation, asking them who they were, how they got in such a spot, and offering love, support, prayer, and some basic provisions.
My trek started in the West Bottoms, a run-down industrial area full of abandoned, decrepit buildings that is in the very infancy of a revitalization. Decaying infrastructure, graffiti, debris, and trash surround and infuse the crumbling, deserted buildings that form the collective landscape of this blighted slice of Kansas City. There are some businesses thriving in this quasi-ghost town, so there are blessed, “homed” people like me there during the day. But the round-the-clock denizens of the West Bottoms are homeless.
I encountered a homeless encampment, pictured in the photo montage above, in the sparsely wooded area bordering this semi-dystopian city scape. Blankets, tarps, mattresses, and various and sundry other improvised “roofs” were piled, stretched and tied off to tree branches to create makeshift tents and shelters. 5 men had carved a “home” into the steep embankment that dropped from the road down to the train tracks at the hill’s base. Climbing down this snowy earthen slope hardened and slickened by the 15 degree temperature was a bit treacherous. And there were a good deal of both utilitarian items (i.e. rope, tools, clothes, pots, plates) and an abundance of trash that nearly ensured that I would fall on my face. Fortunately, I didn’t.
It was with gratitude and compassion that I met Cowboy, Tom, Rick, and Antoine. (The fifth man stayed in his shelter). All of them were obviously suffering from varying degrees of ravaged health. I feel certain they were much younger than their weathered, hardened appearances suggested. Signs of addiction were evident in their countenances as well.
A couple were grateful for the food, socks, money, and coat that I had brought, but not Antoine. Rick had given me permission to take photos of their home, but Antoine grew very angry when he discovered I had taken them. I apologized and offered to delete them from my phone, but he said he didn’t “give a fuck what I did.”
Nevertheless, I was grateful for the opportunity to help him and extended my love and prayers. He looked to be the most haggard and the most “hard scrabble” of the bunch. I suspect he had suffered a great deal in his life.
Tom needed gloves, so since I didn’t have any, he put some of the socks I had brought on his hands. (For those of you who don’t know, socks are one of the most essential items for homeless people in the winter, as one’s feet and socks get damp from sweating. Unchanged socks in severe cold can easily lead to frostbite and potential gangrene and amputation).
Rick and Cowboy were grateful for what I had been blessed to be able to bring and asked me to set it on their rickety table as I was leaving.
As I ambled back to my car parked on the wide part of the shoulder about a block away, I looked back at them wistfully and said, “God bless,” one last time. It was painful to think about them suffering and about their limited prospects for long term relief.
From the West Bottoms, I headed over to the east side of downtown Kansas City, near a couple of homeless shelters. At least one of them opens its doors at 6PM, offers no programs other than a church service, and kicks its clients out at 6AM, leaving them to spend the day wandering the streets.
After a quick lunch of bread, hummus, and water in the parking lot for the KCATA (hoping they wouldn’t run me off from a no parking area, despite there being almost no cars there), I was back on the streets on a mission to find some hurting, suffering people to help.
I met Ron, who was celebrating a birthday by roaming the street near the City Union Mission with back pain and the longest fingernails I had ever seen, save the man in the Guinness Book of World Records. Not very talkative, he recited a quote to me about his fear of becoming good at the wrong thing. I gave him a hug, told him I would pray for him, and gave him some food and money.
I met Rudy, who was a 70 year old Southern California transplant. His goal was to get back to CA to see his family again. He was steadfast in his faith and the power of God’s Word. He quoted several Scriptures to me and cracked a few jokes. He was on his way to the library, but we spoke for a bit. He took some socks and some food and went on his way, beseeching me to pray for him. Of course I said I would.
I met an inter-racial married couple who had been evicted from their apartment and had nowhere to go. They were fighting when I approached them, but calmed down when I asked them who they were and what their situation was. I talked to them for a bit, offering encouragement and giving them some socks and food. Sometimes people just need to know someone gives a shit about them. And the homeless are people too.
All in all, I interacted with about 15 homeless individuals that day. God willing, I was at least a flicker of light in the dark places in which they reside.
As Jesus said in Matthew 25:40, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Our homeless brothers and sisters definitely qualify as the “least of these” in terms of their nearly insurmountable obstacles and lack of resources. As a disciple of Jesus, I was animated by the Holy Spirit that day. But I was also motivated by the trials, tribulations, and sufferings of my life and by the realization that as someone with Bipolar Disorder and addictions, I am in recovery and living a functional life “but for the grace of God.” Any one of the people I met on Monday could have been me.
Prayers for all of our suffering homeless brothers and sisters and prayers for future opportunities to serve them. God willing.
About the Author: I have been in some form of recovery since 1993. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt for many life events. I have accumulated lots of experience, strength, and hope. Please take all you want. There is plenty there that I am not using, but could be…..