That night I squeezed into a space narrower than a coffin, trying to get some desperately needed sleep. I was glad to escape the frigid temperatures outside, but felt uneasy with the strangeness of my surroundings. I hoped that no one would steal my boots while I slept…
Each winter, about 700 homeless people in America die from hypothermia. About 35 people freeze to death each year in New York City where I serve. This is beyond tragic.
Every winter in NYC, in order to prevent this kind of tragedy, the Department of Homeless Services initiates an emergency plan known as Code Blue to prevent people from freezing who are challenged with homelessness. When temperatures fall below 32 degrees or the wind chill falls below 0 degrees, various government and private facilities welcome people inside to escape the freezing temperatures.
The Bowery Mission
I got to experience Code Blue up close and personal at a place that has been providing food and shelter since 1879 — The Bowery Mission (see historic photo at top). Last year, The Bowery Mission provided more than 653,500 warm meals, and 167,300 nights of shelter.
I came to the Bowery in time for dinner that night. Before dinner was a service where one of the staff shared a gospel message in the historic chapel. You don’t have to attend chapel before dinner, but if you do you get to eat first and that was for me. I was hungry.
I sat down in one of the pews and waited for the service to start. A young man started getting into an altercation with someone in the pew behind me. He wanted the other man to scoot over and give him a seat. In order to make peace, I offered to scoot over myself so that he could sit on the end of my pew. I quickly regretted that decision.
During the message, the young man kept commenting disrespectfully to refute what was being preached. I started to get hot under the color and asked him to please chill out and stop talking. He continued to be hostile and belligerently speak against the speaker while he was teaching. I had never seen anything like this. I began to see red and get even more angry at this man’s open rudeness. My temperature rose by the second and I didn’t know what I was going to do, but it wasn’t going to be pretty.
All of a sudden I caught myself. I am not normally an angry person who lashes out easily. What was going on with me? I started to laugh at myself, because I was starting to get just as out-of-control as the guy sitting next to me. I realized that I wasn’t myself and there was a reason why. My back still hurt from trying to sleep on the subway the night before, and I was tired, cold and hungry. I was hangry! Fortunately, I stopped myself before I made a bad situation worse. I realized that the guy sitting next to me was probably in a terrible mood for a lot of the same reasons that I was. Now I could see through the symptoms and imagine the root causes.
When we see someone behaving badly, our mind immediately fills in the missing pieces to explain it. The missing pieces we fill in are usually negative ones that paint the person as a jerk, crazy, or worse. In other words, we judge them. That’s what I did with this loud mouth sitting next to me. Who did he think he was? The person who God said was my neighbor became my enemy in a split second. What happens to many people challenged with homelessness is that bystanders define that person by their worst moment. It reminds me of a story that Brett Hartford (see picture below), Director of Outreach at New York City Relief told about a woman he met during an outreach named Marissa:
“Marissa is homeless. She is overweight, rude, judgmental, crass, and quite racist. She doesn’t have personal awareness. She has a foul mouth. She outwardly accuses everyone of picking on her and looking to harm her — and the list could go on about the outward flaws this girl has.
Tonight, one of our volunteers ran into Marissa while in route to meet us. Marissa saw her and asked if I would be there tonight. After confirmation of this, I invited Marissa to walk along with us while we looked for other people to help. Within 5 minutes of talking with Marissa, she had yelled at one of my co-workers, complaining that they were the reason she was arrested, she yelled at me for a question I asked, and she referred to people of different races than herself (white) in quite unpleasant ways.
“If you are looking for someone who has flaws, sins, or really just is a mess, Marissa fits the bill.
“That’s what we do. That’s what I do. I know I have things I equally am bad at (and probably worse), but I lower my things on the “sin meter”, because I’m not as bad as Marissa, so I’m ok.
“But really, I am Marissa.
“Everyone has flaws. Everyone. Some people’s flaws are just easier to hide than others.
“I’m not addicted to heroin. I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t steal. There’s nothing that I do to negatively affect my outward appearance, thus, nothing blatantly points to those negative characteristics. But they are there.
“I’m a hypocrite. I’m a glutton. I really struggle with lust. I put LOTS of things above my relationship with God. I coast on the fact that I work in ministry day in and day out. I use it as an excuse to not read my Bible or go to church. I say mean things to my wife when we fight. Sometimes I put people’s approval of me over doing the right thing.
“The list could really go on and on. I am Marissa.
“But, just like there is hope for Marissa, there is hope for me.
“All night long, Marissa was cared for, listened to, encouraged, and loved. She spent the entire night’s outreach walking alongside one of our street teams. They did EVERYTHING they could to make sure she knew she was welcome anytime. They even took her out for dinner!
“The team showed compassion and patience to someone who had earned neither. At the end of the night when I saw her again, she was glowing! She couldn’t stop talking about everything they had done. Get this, she shared the food she had been given (A Monster energy drink and Nutter Bars) with our team — even giving her only Monster drink to one of our African American volunteers — and that’s coming from someone who “doesn’t like black people”.
“I earn nothing by way of my failures and sins, but God loves me anyway? He listens when I complain, am rude, don’t give Him credit, am prideful, and a jerk? That makes no sense, But He does.
“Marissa earned nothing by way of her rudeness, but we too, love her anyway.
“In the same way, I believe we are being like Jesus when we do such things:
‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’ John 13:34–35
“I am Marissa, but God loves me anyway. I’m thankful for that.”-Brett Hartford
Everyone has flaws. Everyone. Some people’s flaws are just easier to hide than others.
In the midst of my frustration during the chapel service and being awoken to my own cantankerous nature, I saw something beautiful. The speaker gave an altar call and out of that big crowd of cold, tired, hungry people, a man walked forward to give his life to Christ. While I was caught up in myself, God was at work. Jesus got through to this man who was hungry for grace and forgiveness and who was even willing to publicly step forward to show it. I was so inspired that I struck up a conversation with the loud mouth next to me after service. I wasn’t angry anymore and we actually had a nice talk. God was showing me his grace, which allowed me to give some grace away myself to my pew mate.
Jesus met a lot of messed up people when he walked the earth. Being perfect, he could have easily looked down upon them for all their flaws and pettiness. Instead, he had a different reaction:
“When he saw the crowd, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36
Rather than push away from all the pain and ugliness of this world, Jesus pushed in close. He came close enough to feel people’s pain. That’s what the word compassion means — “to suffer together with” and Jesus was moved with compassion all of the time. The key word there being “moved”. Rather than shaking his head and turning away from the brokenness of this world, he moved in close enough to experience it himself. His love was that big.
Dinner was delicious that night. The Bowery staff and volunteers were very friendly, which meant a lot. A man named Pedro sat at my table. He told me that he was finishing up a 21-day stay at the mission. I asked if the Bowery gave out tooth brushes and Pedro gave me one of his extras. I was really touched by his gesture of kindness and grateful that I could finally brush my teeth.
After dinner I went back into the chapel to wait for a shelter bed. I found out that after they clear the dining room of tables and chairs, they set up cots. Most of this crowd had really hit rock bottom. These were the long-term streetbound homeless. If not for the brutal cold, many would have probably slept outside.
A leader got the attention of all us men to read the list of who was getting a cot and who had to sleep in the chapel. I thought that I would get on the cot list since I was a first timer. I don’t know why I thought that, because I was wrong. I’m sure the guys who got the cots needed them more than me anyway.
After the winners of the cot lottery left, staff pushed all the pews in the chapel over to one side of the room. On the other side of the room they began to lay mats on the floor. During this time, I met a man standing next to me named Dan who was also a first timer at the mission.
Originally from Long Island, Dan had just retired after 18 years in the Navy, including a stint in Afghanistan. His job was to operate a machine gun from helicopters. Dan looked military. He was clean, fit and had a professional manner about him.
I asked Dan if he could access some veteran services and he said the wait was six months. Six months! When he said that I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. I couldn’t believe that someone who had served our country and risked his life for me would come back to become homeless. I was dumbstruck, and it made me want to cry seeing his first day of living on the streets. I hid my emotions and just tried to hold it together.
I gave Dan a New York City Relief connection card that showed all of our outreach times and locations. I told him that those were good people who could help connect him to resources. Dan thanked me and was genuinely grateful.
I never imagined that they would run out of mats, but they did. Thankfully, Dan got one of the last ones. No pillow or blanket, but this warrior got a mat to sleep on the floor. He looked tough and was probably used to worse conditions on the battlefield, but this situation was one that I would never forget. “Honor. Courage. Commitment.”, are the Navy core values that this man lived. I prayed that they would help him in his next great challenge of life on the homefront.
After my week on the streets, my good friend Dave Jones, who is President of The Bowery Mission, informed me that the entire chapel was about to be renovated. The pews were being taken out so that many more cots could be provided. I don’t know how to describe how big a deal this is, and I am grateful for the Bowery’s commitment to give dignity to these men.
I squeezed into a space smaller than a coffin and could not even hold my arms by my side. Someone had laid down some newspapers to cover part of the wood which was sticky. It did not escape my attention that I was laying my head down on a surface that thousands of butts had resided.
As I lay in my pew I looked up on the wall and saw a sign that said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28” I was experiencing such a literal manifestation of this verse. I thought of all the other men over the last 139 years who had also come into this room and were given a chance to lay down their heavy burdens and rest.
I used my vest and jacket as a pillow. Some guys slept in their shoes, but I was so glad to finally take mine off. I put my boots near my head on the pew by my backpack so that no one would steal them. I met a barefoot man in winter once at a New York City Relief outreach who had his shoes stolen while he slept at a public shelter. I was determined for that not to be me. At the Bowery, guards watched over us all night long as we slept which gave me a greater sense of security. Someone cared about my safety.
The guy in the pew next to me seemed happy to get a spot, because he had slept on the sidewalk the night before. He had a bruise and cut on his face where someone had obviously hit him. As soon as his head laid down, he started snoring.
A staffer said it was time for lights out, and then prayed the Lord’s prayer over us. The lights were dimmed in the main part of the room, but where I lay the lights shone brightly into my face. I used my blanket to cover my eyes all night.
Two men walking to the bathroom started arguing. One was joking about the others Caribbean accent and offended him. He started to stare the guy down and asked why he was putting him down. Instead of apologizing, the other guy who was bigger, started yelling and posturing himself. A leader came and deescalated the situation. I saw this kind of thing happen almost everywhere I went. Even though we were sheltered from the snow falling outside, inside we were still exposed to the chaos of the streets.
I passed out in my little wooden slot. I slept on my back or twisted onto my side with difficulty throughout the night. At 1:30AM I got up to go to the bathroom. I was in my socks which was disgusting because there were pools of liquid on the floor in the bathroom. It was just so hard to climb out of my pew much less put on my big clunky boots. I desperately just wanted to fall back asleep as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, I did catch some z’s that night. I would need all the energy I could get to make it through the next day of begging while it snowed.
Stay tuned for part 5 of my Street Pilgrimage series titled, Cold City, Warm Hearts…