Much to my own bemusement, I spent this morning trying to track down a homeless veteran in my car.
Let me explain.
I spent last night (December 8, 2011) in Plymouth, Minnesota sleeping outdoors in a box. (I use the term “sleeping” very loosely, as I am relatively certain actual “sleep” didn’t happen. Thus, my apologies for any lack of polish in this entry.) Temperatures crept closer to zero as the night progressed. In spite of wearing seven layers on top, four layers of pants, a scarf, windproof gloves, a wool hat knit by Sherpas in Nepal, and waterproof knee-high boots designed for -40F, the frigid temperature numbed everything below my waist and made my nose start dripping within minutes of leaving the warmth of the indoors.
I should mention that I went through this ordeal by choice. I was participating in an event run by Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners (IOCP), helping to raise awareness about local homelessness. Last night was the annual interfaith clergy Sleep Out; Rev. Kent Hemmen Saleska, my supervisor at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, invited me to participate in this yearly December ritual with various other pastors, ministers, preachers, friends, and supporters from around the western suburbs of the Twin Cities.
I met many wonderful people at this event, all from varied faith traditions. I arrived at about 10:45pm, and was quickly invited into lively conversation with those already present. Around midnight, our band of troopers progressed outdoors; some chose to hunker down for the night, and the rest of us built up a fire and crowded around, enduring the smoke for the sake of the heat. Hours passed to the sound of laughter, stories, and theological debate (what do you expect with a bunch of interfaith clergy?) as Orion, Ursa Major, and Cassiopeia wheeled slowly overhead, chasing the full moon. Around 2 or 3am, we saw a pair of coyotes trotting under a streetlight, making their way north on Highway 101.
I was the last to turn in for the night—I’m a night owl by nature, and disinclined to feel sleepy when I can’t feel my toes. But around 4am, I realized I would be hosting a lonely vigil for the next two hours, and really, I was supposed to be participating in a Sleep Out. So I hauled my cardboard box out of my car, trudged through the snow, unrolled my tarp, camping mat, and two sleeping bags, donned my thick wool poncho (layer #8), and crawled in to attempt some shut-eye.
My eyes did shut. But as I lay there in my snug little box (only large enough for me to slide in, feet first, up to my armpits), sleep, as I had predicted, eluded me.
At first, I was toasty from the exertion of setting up my box. My smug satisfaction lasted less than five minutes, as the frozen ground quickly began to leech away my body heat, even through all the layers of insulation I’d tried to provide myself. My rump was the first to go numb, followed by my toes and face. I curled my fingers up inside the palms of my gloves. I pulled my wool poncho over my face. I began to shiver.
Then a truck roared by, barely fifteen feet from my head. A couple minutes later, another.
Though sunrise was still two hours away, traffic began passing ever more frequently. Buses began to run, stopping fifty feet up the sidewalk from where I lay; I began to hear the footsteps of strangers within five feet of my head as they hurried through the cold to meet their waiting transportation.
You might wonder, dear reader, why we had set up our tent camp on the side of the highway, knowing that there would be this kind of noise. The honest answer is that the residents of the apartment building on the far side of the parking lot had lodged a complaint and banned IOCP fundraising partners from setting up camp in their quiet “back yard.” The only other unpaved space was the narrow strip of snow-covered grass by the side of the road. It would appear that part of our homelessness simulation involved sleeping in undesirable places so as not to offend neighborhood residents; it provided an unexpected twist of realism.
After what seemed an eternity, I finally heard a woman’s voice: “Time for pancakes!” In reality, I’d been in my box for just over an hour. Gratefully, I clambered out and hauled my gear back to my car.
Once every one was up and about, we headed to a little countryside diner that was bustling with pre-dawn breakfast eaters. (I am rarely voluntarily one of that crowd.) Good conversation accompanied our warm meal, and then we bid each other farewell and went about beginning our days.
I felt a bit at a loss as I headed home. I was finally warm, thanks to the heat of my car, and with a belly full of food, my body started to drift into a sleepy stupor. But the sun was a few inches above the horizon now, and I was concerned that if I went to sleep when I got home, I’d wake up around 8pm this evening.
This dilemma was still rolling around in my head when I pulled up to a red light. A few yards away from my car was an older man wearing jeans, a knit hat, and a jacket that couldn’t possibly be warm enough. He was holding a cardboard sign that read, “Homeless Veteran.”
After a night like the one I’d just had, what else could I do but roll down my window, wave him over, and empty all my spare change into his keeping?
He came over to my car, but rather than holding out his hand or a cup, he extended a small fishing net toward my open window. With sadness, I wondered what experience had befallen him that he used this method to approach a bleary-eyed woman who was offering him money. There was already such a distance between our lived realities—age, gender, profession, privilege—but not even being able to drop my coins directly into his hand seemed, in my exhausted mind, to make the gap completely unbridgeable. He was barely even looking at me as he mumbled his thanks.
Not wanting to be just another generic stranger bestowing pity, but instead wanting to reach out and make some sort of memorable human connection before my light turned green, I said awkwardly, “I spent last night sleeping outside in a box, trying to help….” My voice petered off. How to finish such a sentence? “Trying to help people like you?” Or maybe, “Trying to help raise money and awareness for Interfaith Outreach and Community Programming so that they can continue helping individuals and families transition out of homelessness?” My brain fumbled and stalled.
But now he looked at me as he said, “Yeah? Well I’ve spent the last two years sleeping in my car every night. And I’ve gone to every state agency, and they can’t do anything to help me. The VA office can’t help me. I’ve tried everything. And I’m still stuck out here, living out of my car.” He took a breath to continue.
“Have you tried IOCP?” I asked. “They can help you.”
He shrugged. “Never heard of them.”
The light turned green. “IOCP is in Plymouth. They can help you,” I said. He was already turning away, eyes scanning other cars for potential income. “I’m sorry, sir,” I called. He didn’t respond. I pulled away, feeling somehow shallow, two-dimensional; I realized that I also felt a little stab of resentment that he hadn’t treated me with more courtesy, and was then appalled that I could feel resentful toward a person I had been trying to help.
What else could I have done? Probably nothing. But as I drove, the question changed: What else could I still do?
I marched into my house with new purpose. I logged on to my computer and printed out maps, contact information, and services offered by IOCP. I hurried back out to my car and set out for the intersection where the veteran had been standing. I thought I would give him the information I’d printed out, ask if he needed a tank of gas, or maybe he’d like to join me for a meal. What better way to spend these unexpected morning hours? As I drove along, I went over different ideas of how to approach him, and preparing myself for the possibility that he might just dismiss me and want nothing I had to offer.
When I arrived back at the intersection, he was gone.
I turned around and drove past the intersection again. Then I tried the next one over. I drove to the nearby Perkins, my foggy brain telling me that maybe I’d find him walking over there for a cup of coffee. Would he want me to join him? The question proved moot, of course, since he wasn’t there either.
I turned around and drove home, slowing at every lighted intersection to cast a look around for my adopted veteran. I didn’t find him. About a half an hour had gone by since I’d dropped my coins into his outstretched net.
I felt all my energy drain out of me in a rush. By the time I made it back into my home, I was so tired that it was taking conscious thought to remind myself to breathe.
Yet I couldn’t get the images of the past twelve hours out of my mind. So I sat down to write to you, dear reader. Maybe I just wanted to put my thoughts down so I could articulate them. Maybe I was hoping my thoughtful readers would have some reflections to share. Maybe I just wanted to confess my experience to a wider audience, but I don’t know if I’m looking for sympathy or absolution. If it’s the latter, I doubt the one who could offer such forgiveness would have an internet connection where he could read this entry.
The papers about IOCP are sitting on the passenger seat of my car. Would I even recognize this particular veteran if I saw him again? If he switches jackets, then probably not. But I’m going to keep those papers handy. And the next time I find myself waiting at a red light with a person holding a cardboard sign outside my window, I’ll be able to offer them something more meaningful than a handful of quarters and an awkward apology.