Wild & Rooted
Taylor Swift pours out of the speakers as the kids and I sing along on our way to shop for school supplies. I hit the brakes, just missing the last green light that stands between us and our destination, and as it changes from yellow to red, a man across the intersection catches my eye. He's dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, standing on the sidewalk holding a sign: "Homeless. Anything helps."
This is not an unusual scene, especially at this corner. What is unusual, I notice, is that he doesn't have much with him, a small bag that looks nearly empty. Before our light turns green, he begins to walk across the street, and by the time we reach the spot where we first saw him, he's halfway across a parking lot.
"Mom, should we stop and talk to him?" Max asks from the back seat. "That was the plan," I assure him. "Maybe he'll be back when we come this way again."
After a grueling hour of hard decision making, we load our van with just the right lunchbox and pencil case for each kid—rainbow colored with an elephant that I imagine to be saying "Namaste" for Maxwell, Jackson going in another direction with 3D velociraptors—and more glue sticks than could be considered reasonably necessary.
As he buckles his seatbelt, Max wonders out loud, "Do you think he'll be back by now?" We spent all this time focusing our attention on his needs, and still a perfect stranger is on his heart.
Sure enough, on our way from store A, where dry erase markers were in short supply to store B, where we're hoping things aren't as picked over, we see the man in the white t-shirt standing on the sidewalk.
The light turns red just in time, making it an easy stop. I roll the passenger side window all the way down, and he gives me half a smile as he approaches. I tell him we're on our way to the store and ask if there's anything we can pick up and bring back for him.
"Like what?" he wants to know.
I've learned not to be surprised when someone isn't sure what they need, feels caught off guard by the offer, or has to take a moment to consider whether they're truly permitted to name their needs, even with an open invitation such as this.
"Clothes, toiletries, food, whatever you need," I call back as a cooling breeze flows through the open window.
He thinks for a minute, then lifts his right foot a few inches off the ground. "I could use some shoes," he replies, hesitantly.
I look down to see a nearly unrecognizable mass of ratty leather and laces that, now grey with dirt and wear, appear to have once been white. This could hardly be called a shoe anymore. These sneakers are so tattered and torn that all five toes are visible through the gap in the front.
I hurriedly ask him for his name and his shoe size as the light turns green, calling "see ya soon, Andy" across the front seat. Driving off, the image of Andy's broken down sole lingers.
With the littlest member of the family on my back, the older boys pile into the cart—one in the seat, one in the basket, one living dangerously, riding underneath. We roam the aisles searching for the markers we must buy if I'm going to get the satisfaction, today, of crossing "School supplies" off on my to-do list. We pick out shatter-proof dishes for our new eater (read: plate thrower), and browse the lunchbox aisle. Before we hit the shoe department, the kids suggest we grab food, water, and a special treat for our new friend. They pick out Reese's Sticks, which can only be described as the lovechild of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and a Kit Kat, and I can think of no better thing in all the world.
We check out the tennis shoes in his size, nine and a half. "Do they have any with memory foam inside?" Jack asks. No luck, so we settle for the pair that look most comfortable.
When we return, we find Andy sitting in the shade. He gets up and greets me with kind eyes and a gentle handshake. Oliver gets a high five.
As we sit with Andy, I learn that he's been homeless for a long time, ever since he and his former partner split in Minneapolis. They had four kids together. The oldest is 28.
I learn that he walked away from the breakup with nothing—no money, no job, no place to live. He used to work construction. When I ask what kind of work he's looking for now he says, "Anything. But no one wants to hire you when you don't have an address and you can't show up clean every day."
He tries to get ahead, he tells me, and sometimes gets close, but has never quite made it.
Maybe because you're not supposed to have to do it alone, I think to myself.
I learn that he sometimes showers at Salvation Army, but their showers are in demand, so often he pays to wash up at the truck stop.
He's gotten some help from the county, but not much. Nothing that can get him back on his feet—not without a job and a roof over his head. Place of Hope doesn't have any open beds.
For now, Andy is sleeping in the woods. The woods. No tent, no pillow, no blanket. Last night all his belongings were stolen out of his bag while he slept, including the old smartphone he used to access the internet wherever he could find free wifi.
As I find myself moderately distraught today over a broken washer that can't be fixed until the part comes in this weekend (Two words: Cloth. Diapers.), Andy is taking this setback—of losing everything he had—in stride. He's been knocked down before, he knows the drill.
"Sometimes it's hard not to just give up," he confides in me.
In the brevity of a single moment I sense that he's caught a glimpse of the care and space that's here for him.
"I won't though. I'll keep going," he quickly adds, resolutely and almost apologetically, as though he's not allowed any despair or grief or hopelessness that might burden someone else. Or maybe it's just too dangerous to give himself over to those feelings lest the floodgates open and he can't wrestle them closed again.
While Andy and I talk, we unpack his new shoes. Neither of us has anything sharp, so while I use a pen to snap the tags off, he struggles against the elastic that binds the pair together. After a few unsuccessful tugs, he rubs the cord on the curb, severing it effortlessly. "That's resourceful!" I remark. It's clear he's no stranger to solving problems without the proper tools.
He tries on his newly freed pair of sneakers. "Perfect fit," he says as his eyes light up just a little. I tell him about Laundry Love at Kipp's (he's heard) and about the many people in the community who are working hard to make sure resources and opportunities become available for him. I remind him he's as worthy as any of us even though the world has made that hard to see and believe.
I get Andy's last name. He spells it for me just to be sure and chuckles as I repeat it back to him with a mnemonic device to help me remember. I tell him I'll get my hands on an old smartphone and find him. Maybe have it waiting for him at Salvation Army next time he showers or eats lunch there.
"Are you a hugger?" I inquire as I stand to go. He smiles and pulls me in warmly, thanking me for the shoes. As we pull out of the parking lot and head down the road, Andy gives a friendly wave.
On the ride home—home, what a privilege, broken washer and all—I think there must be other people like Andy who need a phone. Imagine finding a job without the internet and without a phone number. Imagine being homeless and isolated, with no way to connect.
I decide to do something about that. I can't end homeless today, but I can do this. I can find unused phones and get them to people who need phones.
I'm telling Andy's story today, but Andy isn't the only one with a story to tell.
I could also tell you about Jacob who, when presented with the opportunity to make his needs known, simply told me, "I haven't brushed my teeth in so long. A toothbrush would be amazing." I bought him every travel-sized toiletry in the store and invited him to pay forward what he didn't need. His gratitude in response to such a small gesture said it all.
I could tell you about Dan, who stood at the corner on a blistering hot day in a shirt ripped to shreds and asked only for a snack and some water. He rushed to meet me at my car when I returned with food and some basic supplies, trudging through the muddy, wet drainage ditch so I wouldn't have to.
I could tell you about Steven, propped up with a cane, who explained to me that he was released from the hospital the night before after having back surgery and had nowhere to go, nowhere to rest. The sign he held? "Looking for work. Anything helps."
Friends, these are not "homeless people." That's a label we use to render folks faceless and nameless within a group, to keep ourselves at a safe distance.
These are people with rich life stories all their own.
These are our neighbors, our friends.
The food shelf is important. It's good we have shelter beds for some, though far from all, of our homeless neighbors. Yes, your clothing donations help and it's lovely that you volunteer to serve a Thanksgiving meal at the local shelter.
But if we want to meet the real need, and certainly if we ever want to end homelessness, we will only do it by living in community with our homeless neighbors. Engaging with them on a real, human level—not serving at a distance, but sitting in proximity. Investing in deep personal relationships with them. Affirming their worth and our own as equal, and showing them they do belong by intentionally making space for them in our cities, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods, and our lives. Connection is the antidote to all that ails us, individually and collectively.
This isn't just Andy's story. It's our story. It's the story of our community. The story of who we are, what we value, how deeply and how well we care for one another.
The remedy for our disconnection and the dehumanizing fear that it triggers is simply proximity. Drawing near. Hearing one another's stories, sharing a meal and a conversation, working side by side toward a shared goal, sharing time and space together, and little by little discovering that our values, our desires, our hearts and our lives align in ways we couldn't see at a distance.
When we courageously choose connection, I know we'll discover that we're more the same than we are different and that our differences present us with an opportunity to bring richer unity to our community.
Writing is a way of being, for me. It's how I explore the wild unknown within and make sense of the world around me. It's also what keeps me firmly rooted in the rich soil of my experience and who I am beyond it. I'd love for you to discover more of your own wild and rooted self along with me.