Hopeless, to Homeless, and Coming Back Home
by Damian Hanley
In conversation with a homeless man in San Francisco three weeks ago, Father Bob’s heart broke when the man confessed his deepest desire. It wasn’t money, or better food. It wasn’t even a home. He wanted to be seen. “People walk by us all the time and put their heads down. They cross the street to avoid us. All we want is to be looked in the eye. We want to be acknowledged as human beings.” We often don’t think of homelessness as a Respect For Life issue, but when framed in this light – when all they want is the dignity of being recognized to exist – how could it not be?
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Tom B. suffered. There were periods of his life when the pain was covered up and wrapped neatly in the box of a good job, money, houses, cars and a family that loved him. He wore the mask that so many of us love to wear. In fact, the size of the mask is often a good measure of the pain we are in, and that was the case for Tom. There was a point in Tom’s journey that he lost it all and became homeless, but the real story has more to do with his emotional state than it does the places he slept. The events that led him to the streets are more important than the streets themselves.
“I retired at 52 and had probably too much money and too much time for my own good.” Tom had worked in government, in fact, in welfare administration overseeing more than 10,000 people’s affairs, “so I knew all about dysfunction, but that wasn’t me.” From an outward point of view, he had it all, even the important stuff – friends, family and respect. “And I was careful,” he remembers. “I had 5 brothers – all alcoholics – and most of the men in my family had it too. I never wanted to be that way. I would see them drink and lose control, so any time I went out or to a party, I’d have a couple drinks and that was it.”
Right around the time of his retirement, Tom’s marriage began to crumble – death by a thousand cuts. He and his wife separated and Tom began to find himself in bars. “At this point in my life, I can admit I was spiritually and emotionally dead. It didn’t matter that I’d traveled the world – been all over Europe and through Italy – at the end, the only trips I was making were to jail.”
In one of these bars, Tom met a woman. They hit it off. He liked her, and she liked crack cocaine. “My problem is drug addiction. If someone would have told me I’d give away a fortune for that drug before I ever tried it, I wouldn’t have believed them. But that’s what happened. God was no longer important to me.”
It was a long, painful journey. When a drug addict has money, he finds himself surrounded by the wrong kind of people. Tom knew he had no business in the relationship with that woman. He knew his “friends” weren’t friends at all. The fact was, he didn’t care. He’d fallen so far and the pain had become so great, that all that mattered was escaping it. And escape he did.
“I lost my homes. I lost my cars. Even with my pension, I would rent a place and a month or two later get evicted because I just couldn’t keep money.” Tom eventually found himself living under an abandoned tractor trailer halfway to Immokalee. “The rain would come in sideways and hit me. I was wet and filthy a lot of the time – covered in insects. I had open sores on my feet and I would walk for miles to get what I needed.”
But that didn’t matter either. “My soul hurt so bad, Damian.” Tom tears up. “At the end, I found myself here, in Fort Myers, in the middle of US41 trying to walk into cars.. and that didn’t happen. My last attempt was 2:30 in the morning… and I couldn’t stay long enough for impact. I didn’t realize it until a month later, but that was God answering my prayers. That was God telling me to come back, and that’s what every story of recovery is about – how we come back to Christ.”
“I found myself in AA, and one of the men that would go out of his way to help men was a member of this Parish. He showed me a lot of love and compassion – and I needed that. He would drive miles to get me to bring me to an AA meeting, and he didn’t have much either! He was new in AA too. So he was really making a sacrifice. My choices in life had gotten so bad that my family withdrew from me. They no longer took my calls. I was no longer welcome in their home. All that has changed now though. I actually come to Mass with them, here. This is a story about the gift of love – and grace, grace that I certainly did nothing to deserve.”
He never understood redemption, or grace, or mercy like he does today. He remains grateful by acting gratefully. He volunteers at the same food pantry that gave him food when he had nothing, and more importantly, he shares his story. “Pride and arrogance – that would not be the way for me to show thanks to God for what He’s done for me – especially through other people,” Tom admits. “When other people reached out their hand to me, that was an act of love. At the end of an addiction, we fully believe the lie – that we are not worthy – and that is what Satan wants.”
The end of the pain came 4 years ago, and so began Tom’s journey back to God. Advent is a time when we wait for Christ – but this is just symbolic. He came 2000 years ago. He is here now. Our job is to genuinely acknowledge that fact and to act with love and compassion to other people (like, year-round, ideally). Think about what might have happened had the Anonymous Parishioner not picked Tom up for those meetings? Could he have called a cab? Who else would have done it?
And that’s really the question we should ask ourselves when we see someone in need. If not me, then who? Who will help this person? That Parishioner had probably enough money to fill his car with gas and throw a dollar in the basket at a meeting, and yet he still reached out. He still did the next loving thing and, essentially, saved Tom’s life.
The “idea” of a spiritual journey sounds fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about their true nature, the purpose God has for their lives… heck, the meaning of life? It’s your own personal Book of Revelation. Arguably, we’re all on a spiritual journey, but how much attention are we giving it? Of course, during the holidays we claim to pay special attention to this corner of our lives as we shatter last year’s spending records on Black Friday, but sometimes, the “-ISMs” are the starting point of true introspection. It doesn’t have to be consumerism or alcoholism (addiction). It can just be the soul-sickness of being alone. A lot of spiritual journeys begin at the bottom of a barrel (or bottle), where all a person can do is look up. If they look up and see you, will you reach out your hand?
In this season of Advent, what are we doing to prepare ourselves for the day that God gives us His greatest Gift? How are we hastening our spiritual journey? Are we even on one?