I left my office last Friday night after our office Christmas party. It was dark, windy, and a cold 36 degrees outside. And while I would have preferred to go straight home, I had one more errand to run. As I pulled into the parking lot at the Post Office, I saw her sitting on a bench by the flag pole. She was tucked into a sleeping bag, zipped up to her neck. She had a knit cap pulled down over her ears, and she looked like she was settled in for the night.
My office is in a suburban area, with lots of retail shopping malls nearby. It’s not the kind of place where you would expect to see a homeless woman. But Mary is no stranger to this neighborhood. I’ve seen her on some early mornings, camped out in a concrete corner between stores, still bundled into her sleeping bag.
One day I saw her sitting in a local eatery. She was by herself in a booth. There was a coffee cup on her table and dozens of sugar packets ripped open and piled into a mound in front of her. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was all she had to eat that day. I asked one of the employees about her. The clerk said that she comes in often and never bothers anyone. I paid for a gift card and asked the clerk to give it to her.
But on this particularly cold night, only weeks before Christmas, the site of her on that bench just broke my heart. We have many shelters close by, including one run by the county Conference of Churches that will not turn anyone away between November and April. I would have gladly given her a ride. Or bought her another meal. Yet I hesitated. Not wanting to upset Mary or risk my own safety, I instead drove a few blocks to the police barracks.
Yes, the police officers are quite familiar with Mary. Yes, many people have tried to help her. But she refuses most help. I was told that she prefers to sleep outdoors rather than go to a shelter; she feels safer by herself. Sometimes, regardless of our many efforts, there are some souls we cannot help.
For many years I have been involved in volunteer efforts to help homeless and struggling families. Through my employer, we have provided Christmas gifts to families through the Conference of Churches and donated food and clothing to local shelters. And I have involved my Girl Scouts in these activities so that they can become aware of what is often invisible to us, even in our own neighborhoods.
You can become involved too. Call local shelters and ask what kinds of donations they could use. Volunteer your time to assist these organizations. Use your talents to help others. These groups are often in need of legal, medical, or educational services for their clients. Inquire about what you can do to make life permanently better for a homeless person, rather than just collecting or donating items.
In a way, I believe it was Mary who helped me that night. My stress level had been rising to a crescendo all week long. My schedule was packed. When I crossed one thing off my list, I added another. The car was in the shop, I fell up the steps at work and smashed my hand, and then came down with a cold the next day. But so what?
I have a home to go to, and family that love me, and a job, and groceries, and all kinds of stuff that I could certainly do without. Most of all, I have a healthy mind and a healthy body. I am blessed in so many ways. And Mary reminded me of that.
© Vulnerable Path, 2014