But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
- 1 Corinthians 15:10
He couldn’t have been more than a kid, early twenties maybe, though he looked older. Life outdoors tends to age a person prematurely. He was homeless, addicted, alone.
I’ll call him “Daniel” and I met him at a homeless shelter where I was volunteering with my wife the other night. More accurately, Denise is the active volunteer, serving on boards, giving out scarves and blankets, getting to know the residents. Mostly, I tag along for support.
On this particular night, temperatures were in the teens and a steady snowfall covered the streets and sidewalks in front of the church where we waited for walk-ins.
Denise recognized Daniel from another shelter where she volunteers. She asked him how he was doing, what he was up to, showed him where he could sleep for the night and where to get some food in the kitchen.
For the four hours we were there, from 8 p.m. to midnight, Daniel left and returned a few times. At one point, he produced a drawing pad on which he had made a few sketches. He showed them to Denise and she made a fuss, as you would when one of your kids presents you with a few doodles.
A little later, Daniel asked us what the temperature was supposed to be tomorrow. It took a minute but it dawned on me that he wasn’t asking us about the weather in an effort to make small talk. He wanted to see if it was going to be warm enough to survive.
As we spoke to him, I couldn’t help but wonder. How did he get here? What led a young and seemingly healthy young man to an aimless existence on the streets? Certainly, addiction is part of the answer but only part. What happened in his past? Was he ever nurtured or encouraged by anyone?
Then, after the questions, came the realization that there are so many others, like Daniel, living life day-to-day; outdoors and forgotten.
It is true that a few homeless people are homeless by choice. Though able to work or even get back on their feet in a shelter, they choose homelessness instead of structure and rule-following. Denise will tell you that some of the men with whom she worked at the shelter simply walked away on their own rather than follow the house rules. Others were kicked out.
I had another thought as I spoke to Daniel. Could I have been him? With a slight alteration of circumstances, could I have wound up in the same situation due to job loss, financial ruin or illness?
Oh, we say, “Not me. Don’t be ridiculous. Those people are sick. They have problems. They can’t be helped and they don’t know how to help themselves.” Exactly.
There was a time when it was easy for me to disregard young men like Daniel. After all, in Philadelphia, there were hundreds of them. It was easy to walk by, not make eye contact, even snicker.
“Better him than me,” as if I were somehow impervious to personal catastrophe.
We’re all fragile, vulnerable, mortal. Ask the people of Texas where a winter storm has turned life upside down.
While politicians bicker about why it’s so cold and whose fault it is, millions of residents are freezing, without power or drinking water. Warming shelters have opened throughout to state. People who were warm and secure suddenly found themselves hungry, cold and in need of help.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are an estimated 553,742 people in the U.S. experiencing homelessness on a given night. In the Kentucky county where I live, 400 public school students were identified as homeless in 2019.
This is not a call to action to volunteer or donate to your local homeless shelter, though you may feel led to do that. Rather - and I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone - it’s a call to compassion and empathy.
The truth is there’s less daylight between Daniel and me than I was ever willing to admit.
Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.