We received a letter today from M.C., a Ladle guest who went to prison a few months ago. Before that, while he was in the downtown jail, we corresponded with him regularly and visited him once. As with so many of our Ladle guests, we got to know him well over time. He is a complex man, a mixture of high intelligence and energy, creativity, addictive tendencies, mental health struggles, concern for the vulnerable, and genuine desire for God.
He wrote to tell us that he has been released from prison early, and is working on his housing and employment. He also described to us the story of his conversion to Christ and his testimony of God’s presence in his life. At the end of the letter, he shared with us what the Ladle meant to him when he was homeless: “When I could not look anyone in the eye … I was welcome at the Ladle Fellowship. Two winters ago when it rained on and off for 2+ weeks, you guys were there with warm soup and a blanket. When I felt like a failure and I wasn’t doing all I could to help myself…you served me anyway. Then you did a series on ‘Epic Failures of the Bible,’ and I laughed for the first time in a while, and I figured I would give it another try.”
That’s exactly what the Ladle is all about: being there for people even if they’re at their lowest point, even if they’re treating themselves poorly, even if they believe they’re too far gone for grace. We are driven by the gospel, and the gospel of Jesus is exactly for people like M.C. Thank God for that.
The world of homelessness and street life in downtown San Diego is like an alternative society with a culture of its own. Like any other culture, it has its own slang, social hierarchy, norms for behavior, values, and taboos. Maybe this will turn into a series of posts, but for now, here are just a few notable features that I’ve noticed so far about “street culture”:
1) Homeless folks have an eye for the usefulness in things that most people ignore. Resourcefulness is highly valued in street culture. People at the Ladle are constantly showing me things they’ve made from other objects: a belt of shoe strings woven together, a flute made from a metal pipe, an entire bicycle made out of miscellaneous objects. One time a guy showed me a picture of the makeshift “shower” he had constructed on the edge of the freeway, using the sprinkler system and lots of creativity.
2) People often form family-like bonds with the friends that they “camp” with every night. Sleeping alone outside at night in a big city is dangerous for anyone. While there are many “loners” who sleep in hidden alleys or canyons, there are also many pseudo-families of people who sleep next to each other every night. These groups are often highly loyal, and they take care of each other. If someone has to be somewhere during the day, someone else will watch their stuff for them while they’re gone. Or if someone is given food by a passerby, they’ll bring it back for the whole group. They’ll share other resources too, such as blankets, clothes, tarps, cardboard…as well as cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol. Sleeping in groups provides protection at night and companionship during the day. For some people, this is why it’s so hard to transition back into “normal” society after being on the streets for a while; because their group of friends under the I-5 bridge or on the corner of 16th & Island was the closest thing to family they had ever experienced.
3) Those with severe delusions and other forms of severe mental illness are taken care of, not shunned. I’m often amazed at how tolerant the homeless community is of its members who suffer from severe delusions or paranoia. Those who are neurotypical, as well as those with less severe mental illnesses, are often highly conscientious of these folks, making sure they stay fed, clothed, and protected from danger. People are valued for their personalities, their companionship, their stories and insights, even if their perception of the world is highly distorted by brain diseases. Many times I’ve seen homeless folks exhibit levels of patience and compassion toward their mentally ill friends that would trump that of even the most experienced nurse or social worker. If only our larger society could learn to treat the severely mentally ill with that same level of understanding and care!
One of the meanings of Good Friday is that God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, has plunged the depths of human suffering. He picked up the cup of agony and drank every last drop.
Every year in San Diego, on Good Friday, a group of Christians walks through downtown, reenacting the stations of the cross and reflecting on a different type of human suffering at each stop. This year they made a stop at our church, First Presbyterian, for the third station of the cross: when Jesus falls the first time. Here is the reflection I gave on homelessness in connection with that moment in Jesus’ journey to the cross.
The suffering of homelessness is the suffering of alienation, social stigma, loneliness, estrangement from family, and fear of people. It’s being a victim of violence, sexual violence, and verbal abuse. It’s being unable to shake the feeling of futility that things will never change. It’s aches and pains, addictive cravings, psychological stress, hunger, and persistent insomnia. It’s being wet and shivering all night long. It’s constant, unrelenting vigilance about the safety of your belongings and your own body. It’s mind-numbing boredom. It’s PTSD, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse disorder, all at the same time, and maybe with some diabetes, heart disease, Hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS thrown in. It’s falling down and feeling like you can’t get up.
Homeless people are extremely diverse. I’ve met pastors, rabbis, scholars, business owners, and engineers who have ended up on the streets. I’ve also met men who have been gang members since childhood, and women who have been sold for sex for just as long. They all share at least one thing: the belief that their homelessness means they’re too messed up, too dysfunctional, and too broken for “society” to want them.
On Good Friday we praise God because, miracle of miracles, we — the human race — are not too messed up, dysfunctional, or broken for him to want us. In fact, he wants us so much that he suffered our dysfunction and brokenness in his own body, in order to give us his health and wholeness in return.
When we show love to the homeless, we display the love of God which searches the streets and alleys for the poor, the maimed, the crippled, and the blind, and compels them to come into his great feast (Luke 14:21–23). As lovers of God, may we humbly kneel next to those who have fallen down and gently encourage them to stand up again.
Lord Jesus, we bring before you the suffering of the homeless. Give us the wisdom, patience, and compassion to extend kindness and friendship to the many homeless folks around us. Give guidance to our civic leaders as they face the complex and systemic issues that drive homelessness in our city. Give guidance to our churches as they care for the spiritual and physical needs of our neighbors on the streets. We pray for justice, hope, restored relationships, healed bodies and minds. We thank you for your suffering and for your amazing love for us. Amen
B.B. is a new face at the Ladle. I first noticed him with suspicion, since I frequently saw him hanging around a woman whom I know to be particularly susceptible to manipulation and abuse. Soon, however, he approached me on behalf of that woman and shared his concerns about her safety on the streets. He wondered if there was anything we could do for her, or if he could somehow help. Many abusers claim to have noble, “protective” motives, but he was clearly not playing that game. He was genuinely worried about her. Since then he has helped remind this woman to take her diabetes medication every day, a feat which I’ve been struggling to accomplish for months.
Eventually he shared his own story with us.
He lived his whole life in Illinois. He had a desk job and saved for retirement. He had a wife and a daughter who is going to grad school soon. Then, somehow he got entangled in a financial scam which wiped out his $150K of saved retirement money and stressed his marriage to the point of divorce. Burdened with defeat, depression, and a feeling of meaninglessness, he gave up. This year he became homeless for the first time in his life at age 53, and moved to San Diego for the weather. He doesn’t drink or do drugs and has no mental health issues. He could easily blend in at my workplace, church, or family gathering. He’s just a man who hit the point of despair, with no safety net to catch him, and he hasn’t yet re-emerged.
Today, B.B. came by the church to tell me about another vulnerable woman on the streets whose safety is worrying him. He is trying to keep an eye on her as well as the other woman with diabetes. I wonder if he’s looking for a sense of purpose in all this.
Like all of us, B.B. needs his defeated imagination reawakened by the gospel of Christ, the miracle of resurrection, the reality of eternal life. He needs to know his value in God’s sight. He needs to reckon with his brokenness and confess it. He needs to be reassured by the mercy of God.
The man needs Jesus. And some friends!
One of our guests — I’ll call him D.W. — has been attending our Wednesday night Bible study and dinner for years. He’s been on and off the streets since he was 18, and is middle-aged now. While fleeing his abusive father at age 8, he, his mother, and sister got into a devastating car accident. His mother died in the hospital a day later. He was put into foster care and lost contact with his siblings and extended family. After suffering physical and sexual abuse from his foster parents and siblings, he finally decided he’d had enough. He left San Diego, moved to Arizona, and ended up homeless and drug addicted. He started stealing to feed his drug habit, and that landed him in prison.
After prison, he came back to San Diego, worked some odd jobs, and tried to stay sober. Haunted by his past, with no family or support system, and with an incomplete education, he eventually ended up homeless again. He’s been surviving outside ever since, sometimes winning and often losing the battle with depression and drugs.
When you meet D.W. for the first time, you wouldn’t guess all that about him. On a good day you might not even realize he’s homeless, aside from the big backpack. He has a humble demeanor, kind eyes, and good manners. You can tell he tries earnestly to do the right thing, to help others, to stay sober when he can.
A few weeks ago, D.W. stopped by the church midday on a Friday, dropped off a note, and walked away. As soon as I read it, I ran outside to chase him down, but he had already rounded the corner — and I wasn’t sure which one. The note said that he couldn’t do it anymore, that he planned to intentionally overdose on heroin (not his drug of choice) and go “lights out” that night, but that he wanted to say goodbye and to thank us for all we had done. After tracking him down and eventually finding him an hour later, he was shaking with tears, and he refused to talk to me. I tried to approach him but he told me to get away and took off down the sidewalk.
For the next two weeks, I was calling hospitals daily and eventually tried calling the morgue, but nobody had him. That was both distressing and relieving. Then, weeks later he came by the church on a weekday once again.
He wanted to tell us that instead of finding heroin that night, he had gone to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He apologized for scaring me, and told me that he knew God loved him and was taking care of him. Now he is back at our Bible study every Wednesday night, with his humble, grateful, sober demeanor still intact.
We know that he and so many like him are still living lives on the brink of despair. But when you see God save someone’s life right before your eyes like that, there is reason to hope.
Whenever I answer the “what do you do for work?” question, one of the follow-up questions I almost always get is: “How many people are homeless because of mental illness?” It’s a logical question. Walking around downtown San Diego, or nearly any city in America, it won’t take long before you come across someone with noticeably poor hygiene who appears to be talking, often angrily, to the air. Seeing that same snapshot over and over again creates a certain impression.
Statistically, there’s a big correlation between mental illness and homelessness. Nearly a third of homeless people in San Diego last year were willing to admit to strangers (volunteer interviewers) that their mental issues were a significant factor in their continued homelessness. And that’s just self-reporting; plenty of others would be embarrassed to admit something like that, or are in denial.
The problem is that, behind the “homelessness and mental illness” question, there are often some underlying assumptions being made. Assumptions about who is worth helping, who is capable of change, who is worth the investment–and who isn’t.
Nothing has the power to change someone’s perspective like personal experience: getting to know mentally ill homeless folks on a personal level, hearing their stories, learning to love their idiosyncrasies, and yes, being driven crazy by their unreasonableness. You start to see that the snapshot of someone talking to the air downtown is just that: a snapshot. You see people on their good days, not just their bad days. You start to see that the fears, loves, and hates going on beneath the surface of the delusions are a lot more relateable–more normal–than they first appeared. And you slowly begin to realize how street life itself is a cause, not just an effect, of mental problems.
Consider our dear friend, Don. Don has schizophrenia and was homeless for four decades on the streets of San Diego. On the streets, Don had an unkempt beard, gnarly fingernails, a quick temper, and a tendency to growl and bite his own fist when he got upset. At first glance, it was hard to know how to help someone like him. Today, Don is being taken care of in a nursing home. His needs are met and he has a safe and stable place to live, perhaps for the first time in his adult life. Although his physical health is declining, his mental health is better than we’ve ever seen it. He still has some symptoms of schizophrenia and anxiety disorder, but he is calm, easy to talk to, clean-shaven, and content. Best of all, he has a clear and unwavering faith in Jesus.
Mental illness is a contributing factor in many people’s homelessness. But it is not the totality of who someone is, and it does not have to be the end of their story.
One of our Ladle regulars is an older gentleman in his early seventies. He’s originally from the East Coast but has lived in California for decades. He tells me often about his time studying for the Catholic priesthood as a young man, his job as a schoolteacher, his beloved parents, and the time he met Katherine Hepburn when he was working at SeaWorld. Some weeks he stops by the church almost every day for a cup of coffee in the morning and some conversation.
He has good days and bad days. I wonder at what point in his life the symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar began to set in and disrupt his life. I wonder what kinds of traumatic experiences he may have had that contributed to his mental disorders. I admire how he tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy and personal dignity; he always pays attention to his appearance and is proud of his academic vocabulary. And yet, I’m frustrated by how impossible it is to reason with him on his bad days.
He has no living parents or siblings. Never married, never had children. He’s alone in world, continually cycling through the revolving doors of hospitals, jail, psychiatric crisis centers…and First Presbyterian Church.
Despite his sometimes fragile grasp on reality, one thing he knows for certain is that he loves the Lord, and that the Lord loves him.
This church is a haven for him, and the closest thing he has to family. I haven’t seen him here for a few days now…and I’m missing coffee time.
Yesterday was the Rescue Mission’s annual candlelight vigil for the homeless who died on the streets last year. We grieved the lives lost, all 116 of them, certain that at least a few were known to us — including a family member of John, our director.
During the vigil, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lloyd. Lloyd was a middle-aged homeless man and a regular at our Ladle meals, where he came both for the food and for the kindness. His unrelenting alcoholism had kept him languishing on the streets for many years. He vacillated between apologetic despair and a simple faith in God that edged toward hope. He always expressed his gratitude to us for serving him and often seemed ashamed by his inability to repay the favor. On his good days, he had smiling eyes and a compliment for everyone. On other days, he kept to himself and just emanated sadness.
Last fall, Lloyd let me know privately that he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer — stage four. He told me he was ready to die and that he hoped God would accept him. I saw Lloyd for another month or two after that, and then he stopped appearing at the Ladle. It’s now been almost a year since I’ve seen him.
At the vigil yesterday, John reminded us that our God is a God of the homeless and lonely. Even Jesus had “no place to lay his head.” Lloyd’s life and death mattered. I wish I could tell him how much he has been missed.
Even though the Christian Church has fallen out of fashion in many modern circles, we see every week (and sometimes every day) that people in crisis still turn to the Church for solace, banking on the kindness of God’s people. Especially because our church building is so iconic and so “churchy,” people frequently knock on our doors seeking everything from a bathroom, to a borrowed phone, to a word of encouragement or a shoulder to cry on. It’s striking to think that people still know that we as Christians are commanded by God to help the poor and show mercy to the hurting. In desperate moments, they depend on us to fulfill that commandment — and so, they show up at church.
Jesus’s greatest gift to the world is the gift of himself. Likewise, the greatest gift his people can give is the gift of themselves as Jesus makes himself known through them. When it comes to the plight of homelessness, the funding and services provided by government agencies are highly needed. And yet, the role of the Church — of people giving of themselves to others with the love of Christ — is invaluable and irreplaceable. Anyone can throw money at homelessness. It’s the Church that throws people.
For Christians, this means we ought to remember our sacred obligation to personally engage with the homeless and get to know them as fellow human beings, rather than outsourcing them as a “problem” for the government to deal with. It’s not the job of social services to love people. That’s our job as imitators of Christ.
For policy makers and service providers, this means that the Church’s role in the homeless community should not be overlooked. Many of the people we serve don’t trust anyone; and yet they trust us, as the only people who see them as people and love them with God’s love. This gives us a level of access into people’s lives that professional agencies need, and yet often miss.
I saw this happen today. One of our Ladle guests is enrolled in a local program for mentally ill homeless seniors. This morning, I was texting with his nurse about tracking him down and changing his medication. By building collaboration between the social service agency and our church, we are both able to serve and care for him so much better than either of us could do alone.
One of the hardest realities about life on the streets, especially for the chronically homeless who have been out there for years, is isolation. You get the flu and no one takes care of you. Or, worse, you end up in the ER and no one goes with you. Many of our friends from the Ladle have no family, or they haven’t spoken to their families in decades. Many have become accustomed to highly solitary lives. Sometimes it’s painfully obvious: someone will be visibly jarred just by being spoken to, or being called by their name, or being touched.
The isolation of many homeless folks is especially highlighted when people go through medical crises. Hepatitis A is currently ravaging many of the homeless in San Diego, including some of our Ladle guests. This week we had to admit one of our most faithful attendees to the hospital for this disease. This individual has no living family members, and he has been isolated on the streets for a long time, suffering from episodic anxiety and schizophrenia. Yet he is truly a brother in Christ. His faith in God and his humble heart, despite everything he has gone through, is something remarkable.
John sat with him in the ER for half the night on Wednesday. Otherwise, he would have been there alone, physically ill and mentally troubled, with no one to speak up for him or make him feel safe in the uncomfortable and scary environment of a hospital waiting room. Our goal at the Ladle is to break into the isolation of our guests and become family to those who have no family; that’s exactly what happened in that waiting room.
I got to go visit him today, and another friend of his from church is going to see him tonight (despite this whole get-up the nurses make us wear). He is not alone. He is deeply loved, and he has a family.
That’s what one of our guests said to me on Sunday when talking about why he doesn’t want to go to a traditional clinic for medical care. He’s usually referred to only with nicknames, although over the past six months he has shared his real name with a couple of us. As a young black man growing up in the South in the 1960s, he experienced a lot of abuse from “the system.” In high school, a gym teacher racially insulted him and he grabbed the man’s lanyard in defiance. That landed him in prison, since the judge counted it as “assault with a deadly weapon.” It’s not surprising that he distrusts institutions.
He loves the Ladle though. We’ve gotten to know him well. He makes money by washing and detailing cars, and he’s gradually growing his client base. We think he’s really got the potential to turn it into a legitimized business someday.
By giving him an opportunity to speak with doctors in a setting where he already feels comfortable and cared for, with people he already trusts, we’re able to give him access to medical care that he might not otherwise receive. That’s the whole point of Street Corner Care. He summed it up well when he said, “I don’t like going to clinics. But I like your doctors. You guys are the only doctors I’ll talk to.”