…Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind. And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room. ~ Luke 14:21,22
If you had reason to be out on the streets of Louisville before dawn between Monday and Wednesday, September 19-21 you may have glimpsed a knot or two of flashlight-and-clipboard-toting surveyors working in the darkness. These early-birds, sporting vivid yellow or orange T-shirts were gathering information for the 100K Homes Campaign, a national movement with the aim of finding permanent homes for 100,000 of the country’s most vulnerable homeless individuals and families by July of 2013. But, while I was a member of one of the 20 survey teams afoot in the city, it’s unlikely I was one of the volunteers you spotted. My colleagues and I were well off the beaten path, peering into the bushes, following railroad tracks and scaling the slopes of expressway underpasses south of town.
I was an odd duck in the midst of a flock of professional social workers, a curious novice on an information quest of my own. Exhausted and disillusioned with the artifice in the profession in which I had landed, I resigned my internet marketing job in March to pursue experience and employment in the non-profit sector. I’m not really sure how the invitation to take part in 100K Homes found me, but I was intrigued from the get-go. Here was the opportunity to go directly to the source and see where people landed when they fell through the cracks, to uncover clues about why some bounced and some broke, and what kinds of people were offering their hands in help. It was a chance to see if I would crumble, to see if I had what it took to face unpleasant truths and do what had to be done. And, yes, it was a chance to make connections and let the housing community know I’m serious about my commitment to this issue.
And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. ~ Luke 14:23
What a comfort to have this blessing on our efforts from one of the world’s great spiritual teachers, because what we were about to undertake could easily be regarded as a fool’s mission. Before we left the Wayside Hotel, we signed away our right to sue the campaign for any injuries, received recommendations for avoiding and defusing threatening situations, and heard the warnings about approaching dogs at homeless camps. Then we headed out into the fog to awaken wary strangers as their uninvited guests.
The campaign had furnished us with maps indicating sites where folks often hunkered down for the night. At first we suspected that our assigned park was abandoned when our “hellos” went unanswered. The grounds were litter-free and the landscape was in good condition, giving us no clues as to the whereabouts of anyone sleeping out. We hiked a fence row beside the highway and found a break in the fence with some nearby evidence of activity. Loudly, we announced our presence and intentions: no response. Was it a wise and worthwhile risk to plunge into the gloomy woods with only a narrow means of escape should things go sour? Nope. That was pretty much a no-brainer… We returned to the park content to take one more quick look and call it a night.
It must have been the brief exposure to evidence of human habitation in the woods that made us a bit more savvy about where to look. A close look under a bridge structure revealed a man wrapped to his neck in a dark material that kept him all but invisible. He refused our offer of a grocery gift card in exchange for an interview on the first morning, but he crawled out the next day when he decided it was the best way to get us to leave him alone! Skirting the park on the way to the car, we came upon a copse of trees, circled it, and found a tent tucked way back inside. The young man in the tent became our first successful survey participant. Both men reported that they were in good health and indeed their health did appear good enough, under the circumstances. We left them both seeming somewhat cheered by our visit, an unexpectedly pleasant outcome for me!
Having gone out into the hedges Monday, on Tuesday morning, we proceeded to the highways–the freeway underpass to be exact. Unlike most folks downtown, who often find refuge near places services are provided, the homeless men with whom we spoke laid low, requiring us to seek them out in their hide-aways. Amazingly polite for people roused from their beds in the wee hours, three solitary men spoke with us on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. But getting to them presented a physical challenge.
Our map and information from the previous morning’s contacts directed us down railroad tracks leading to the overpass. On Monday the young man in the tent had told a tale of children who had gone that way and never returned, and I was a little leery of breaking an ankle running from danger over the cross ties. My comrades assured me I was a little too gullible and a trip down the tracks was definitely in the offing. By the time we started the trek I was enjoying the adventure, recalling the family stories of uncles who hitched freights as children and lived to tell the hair-raising stories. How else would I, at better than half a century, have the chance to experience anything so daring as legally trespassing on the train tracks unless I had my social services street gang beside me in the dark and the local beat cop talking on the phone with our team leader?
Crossing 20 feet of trestle while looking over my shoulder for a big, white light proved to be a small potatoes compared to a climb up–and especially down a 45° incline from the top of the freeway underpass. I’m glad this was not my first exposure to the homeless campsites. We had been spared a view of the particulars of living conditions until this time, and even in the light filtering dimly from the street above, the unpleasant odor rising from dirty carpet pads, mats and old mattresses, and the occasional roach and centipede drove the miserable reality of these circumstances home. A sore on the head of one of our interviewees prompted a volunteer to wonder if he had banged it sitting up too quickly under the low clearance of the concrete roadbed. Nonetheless, it was easy to understand why these men had chosen the location. The spot was private, relatively warm, and dry in spite of the rain that had fallen just the day before.
Perhaps the most troubling discovery our team made was a deserted camp with an abandoned baby carrier and playpen. Clearly the inhabitants had been gone for sometime, but the image those artifacts represented of an infant living at such terrible risk is beyond nightmares. Needless to say, if the family had been discovered in that space, intervention would have been imperative. Wisely, the teams were assembled around seasoned veterans who knew exactly what steps to take had we encountered an emergency.
We returned to Wayside in the hope that more attention to remote sites such as those we had investigated would be forthcoming. It is clear that not all homeless people in Louisville choose to live in downtown. As the economic conditions continue to deteriorate in this country, more and more people will find themselves struggling on the streets. What may look like humble accommodations looks like a mansion compared to the piles of rags many people are calling home in our city. 100K Homes seeks to make a difference by providing housing for the most vulnerable. Room in our hearts for those in dire straits is the first accommodation we need to make. Let us resolve to prepare that place.
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. ~John 14:2