There isn’t a week that goes by while performing homeless outreach that I’m not confronted with something new. Often I’m provoked by my own prejudices and bias assumptions toward those in need; other times I’m challenged by self-imposed limits as to what service I can or should provide; and often I’m pulled between my worldly priorities and the calling to simply serve. Other threats are external, heroin addiction amongst the fallen, drug dealers and gang members looking to profit and exploit the weakest among them, and the disease and death that takes without prejudice.
What I realized this week is that when the service to others is at its most basic, all that remains is perfect friendship. At 10:30pm Thursday night, I had the bus parked on the corner of Jackson and Franklin Ave on the South East corner of the Sears Tower to help some homeless men gathered in a door way. As I was handing out some food, hygiene items, fresh clothes and tents, a security guard across the street working at the Brooks Building next to Giordano’s Pizza took notice and left her post. She walked down an adjacent alley and told another group of about five homeless men living between some dumpster that someone was distributing items for the homeless. These men slowly limped out of this urban cave and approached the bus. As the first man reached the bumper of the bus, he fell onto the pavement in pain from the short walk. As he gripped his cane picking himself up, he asked in a hoarse voice, “Do you have any food, anything to drink? I just need something to eat!” As he yelled this, he went into a coughing fit that lasted several minutes. About this same time, the others reached the bus and began screaming at each other as to who was to be served first. This reminded me of another things that I’ve learned while helping people on the streets. Death by starvation is slow and angry.
The bus locker doors were closed to avoid possible looting so I took my time to help up the fallen man that was now leaning against the bus and his cane. I grabbed a stool for him to sit on and asked what was hurting him so much. “My feet, I can’t feel my feet but my legs won’t stop hurting. And I’m so fucking hungry. Can I just have something to drink, please man, just something to drink.”
I grabbed him some water and crackers and asked if I could take a look at his feet. “Yes, please, anything, they won’t stop hurting.” As I pulled off his shoes, I expose one bloody sock and realized that his other foot had been amputated. And as I cut his one sock, I exposed a severely deformed and diseased foot. To summarize, all these men had various amputations, serious foot rot, funguses and deep abbesses.
Over the next two hours, each person’s soiled socks and shoes were removed, their feet were washed and applied antifungal and antibiotic creams and bandages were applied. This is both a repulsive but intimate act of service. As each man slowly drank, ate and had their feet attended to, they become noticeably calmer and relief slowly washed over them. Witnessing the transition of an angry and desperate man to one of relief and slight happiness was a beautiful thing to witness. As each man departed with fresh socks, new shoes and all the food they could carry, they had full smiles and all freely gave handshakes and hugs. None of us knew each other’s name, but all of us parted calling each a friend.
I read a proverb recently that says a shoeless person feels sorry for themselves, until they meet someone who has no feet. It was at that point that I realized that not only did we all depart as friends, but we all departed less troubled by our burdens. I would wish everyone to have such friendships.