“Timmy, no! Put your hand down.”
I caught him out of the corner of my eye. He was waving to the man, of all things.
“Because I don’t want him to come over here.”
I inched my car forward, continuing to wait for the light to change, as Timmy continued to stare out the window from the front seat.
“Timmy, stop staring. It isn’t nice.”
“But Mommy, that man is holding a sign.”
Advancing a few more inches, I tapped my thumbs on the steering wheel. I could hear my son muttering under his breath as his eyes remained glued to the man on the sidewalk.
“H-e-l-p me. Help me.” Timmy turned to face me. “Mommy, that man needs help. We should help him!”
“No, Timmy. He and his friends are homeless.” I glanced out Timmy’s window as the middle-aged man in a red bandana and ripped jacket gave us a hopeful stare.
Timmy gasped in shock. “You mean, they don’t have a house to sleep in?”
“No. And we shouldn’t be talking to them.”
As a flash of green signaled my clearance, my foot jolted the car forward. Timmy sat erect, slapping the car window as I accelerated away from the small gathering of vagrants on the sidewalk. Timmy faced forward, settling back into his seat. Moments of silence elapsed before another question emerged from Timmy’s lips.
“Mommy, why shouldn’t we talk to those people?”
I released a heavy sigh.
“Timmy, just because, okay? It’s hard to explain. Just because.”
Well, that topped the list of failed responses. I knew such a comment wouldn’t win mother-of-the-year, but I was at a loss as to how to answer. I mean, my 9-year-old wouldn’t understand. Of course, I was teaching my son to be kind and helpful to others, but how could I explain the possible dangers of associating with those people?
We shared the remainder of our ride home in silence. Timmy’s arms were crossed in front of him, his face held in a scowl, as he stared out the window. Obviously deep in thought . . . obviously irritated with me.
Timmy’s countenance softened as darkness blanketed our house. He completed his homework, we shared light conversation over dinner, and watched our television shows before he went to bed. Neither of us spoke another word about observing the homeless.
Timmy stepped out of the car into the brisk air the next morning after arriving at his school. The changing weather and continual drops in temperature heralded the nearing arrival of Thanksgiving, just a few days away. Blowing a light kiss good-bye to my boy, he peeked his head back in the car as he held the door.
“Mommy, you know those homeless people? I just think we should do something. They need to have something to be thankful for.”
He shut the door and skipped off to class. Sigh.
I guess homelessness was everywhere, even in my sleepy Pennsylvania town. Even among the tree-lined streets of my quaint little town, rich in Civil War history, homelessness abounded. On any given day, in the heart of downtown, one could spot people in tattered clothes wearing backpacks, or lugging carts down the sidewalk stuffed with possessions. I knew there were shelters in the area, although, as I supposed it was with most cities, there were never enough.
As I busied myself with mundane tasks around the house, my little boy’s words haunted me. I just think we should do something. Timmy had a bright mind, along with a heart the size of Montana. Far be it for me to ever pull anything over on him. I reflected on my failed response yesterday about not talking to “those people”. Who was I kidding? There was no appropriate rebuttal. No good reason not to talk to someone who was homeless, not really. I just imagined they may be dirty, strange, or dangerous. Getting involved in any way could prove to be . . . messy. Still, the message was simple to my son. If someone needs help, you help him. That was that.
While drying the dishes at my sink, I pictured the desperate face of the man on the sidewalk yesterday. What was his story? As I vacuumed my plush living room carpet, thoughts of my son invaded my mind. Timmy’s driving emotions were pure, sincere, and intent. They need to have something to be thankful for. I reckoned I could probably learn a lot from that little boy.
Surrendering my housework duties, I finally meandered to my computer, navigating to the Google search bar.
“How do people become homeless?” I typed. Of course, I had my own theory as to how someone may become without a place to live . . . mental illness, unemployment, broken relationships, addictions—just to name a few. As I clicked on a site, I wrinkled my forehead, leaning in toward the screen. Before me were individual shots of men and women, each with a separate story, explaining life circumstances that led each of them to a place of destitution.
A twinge of pain began stabbing at my heart as I read about “Gary”, an army veteran who worked for a trucking company. He one day suffered a heart attack that left him disabled, and his wife kicked him out.
Struck by the dark circles under her eyes, I examined a photo of “Barbara”; “Babs” as she preferred. She grew up being molested by several members of her family. Her faint blue eyes showed years of abuse.
Scrolling down, I met the face of “Adele”, who, after her divorce, slept in her car until it broke down. A kind mechanic allowed her to sleep in his garage for one week, and then gave her a cart to carry her belongings in.
What I never expected to find were stories about youth . . . young adults, “travelers” as they called themselves. I learned there are groupings of young adults living a nomadic lifestyle, hopping trains, where together, they find purpose and community. Many of these young adults were either neglected or abused as children. Tragically, many turned to drug use to help ease the pain of their childhood trauma.
Swallowing hard, I crumpled back into my chair. I had no idea. Then again, I hadn’t ever taken the time to really think about it before. The faces before me were people, just like me, who were dealt with a difficult blow. Pressing my hands against my cheeks, my eyes puddled with tears upon realizing that under a poor coat may perhaps be a rich heart.
Don’t we all suffer setbacks in our lives?
The difference is, some individuals endure trials without adequate resources, or with the absence of any support network, rendering their outcome to be devastating. A profound loss of . . . everything.
I had certainly suffered my own storm, though I fared quite well. I was able to keep my beautiful house with the fireplace in the living room. The charming window box above my kitchen sink overlooked a large back yard lined with stately trees bordering a running stream. Yeah, it was a nasty divorce, but I had resources. I had support. Family and friends weathered my storm with me. I pondered how different my outcome would’ve been. Tears anchored at the corners of my eyes as I hung my head in shame.
Someone else is praying for the very things I take for granted.
After dinner that night, Timmy sat on the couch, scraping his bowl of ice cream with a spoon. The scraping stopped at the beeping sound of a weather alert on the television. Drying my hands, I left the kitchen and moved to the living room to listen to the local weatherman appearing on the screen.
“The first arctic blast of the season is forecast to sweep through our area, just in time for Thanksgiving. We can expect gusty winds and a hard freeze, with overnight temperatures topping the 20’s and 30’s.”
With a sudden resolve, Timmy set down his bowl, dashing to his room. Tilting my head to the side, I lingered behind him to investigate what he was up to. As I stood in his doorway, I spotted several of Timmy’s blankets, neatly folded, including his prized Star Wars blanket and his Buzz Lightyear fleece throw. The pile totaled five or six blankets, and Timmy was crouched in his closet searching for more.
“Timmy, what are you doing?” I asked, however, I had a pretty good idea what was making his wheels turn.
“Mommy,” he said, turning to face me. “I wanna give these to those homeless people. They need something to keep them warm.”
“Timmy, put the blankets back.”
“Timmy, put your blankets down and grab your coat.”
Timmy opened his mouth, but said nothing.
“Come one, get your coat. We’re going shopping for . . . blankets.”
He dropped his throws, grabbed his insulated, down jacket, and flashed me a wide smile.
We didn’t stop at blankets. Perusing the aisles, we selected men’s and women’s scarves, mittens, hats, and gloves. And of course, blankets. Timmy’s humming and skipping brought a few chuckles to my lips. I too, had to admit—what we were doing felt good.
“Mommy?” His arms were now folded on his lap in the front seat. “Can we deliver these things tonight?” He looked straight ahead as he asked, most likely fearing my response.
Biting my lower lip, I straightened up in my seat and took a deep breath.
“Honey, I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” It was dark out, after all.
“But Mommy, it’s cold out already, and it’s gonna get colder. They need to be warm!” His voice choked with emotion.
“Yes, but maybe we should wait until tomorrow.” When it was no longer dark.
Glancing to my right, I examined the desperation on Timmy’s face. It would be an extreme risk, however, something about the pained stare on my little boy’s face compelled me toward the unthinkable.
Timmy gave a crisp nod as I guided the car downtown near the sidewalk where this whole issue between Timmy and I first began. It was early evening, and although it was dark outside, the stars above me almost seemed to be winking. I parked the car on the street in front of the library, next to the small park inhabited by groupings of homeless individuals. The area was well-lit by street lamps, for which I was thankful.
For a few, long moments we just sat in the car. Hesitant, I scanned the group of vagrants, not knowing quite how to pull off this delivery. I mean, how exactly does one initiate conversation with a homeless person?
“There he is!” Timmy had been scanning too, and spotted the man with the red bandana. “C’mon, Mommy!”
“Wait, uh . . . .” Before I could issue any kind of cautionary warning, Timmy was out of the car, opening the trunk. “Well, wait for me!”
Gathering the large shopping bags from the trunk, we stepped across the sidewalk onto the grass covering of the park, my heart pounding in my ears.
“Hey there! We have some stuff to help keep you warm!” Timmy shrieked.
As I was searching my mind for some sort of reference manual on how to speak to the homeless, Timmy just did it. My hesitation was forcefully driven away as we handed out the bounty of items. An old woman’s cold hand squeezed my arm as I gave her some mittens. A wrinkled smile erupted from an old man as he took a wool scarf from me, wrapping it around his neck. Finally, Timmy and I came face to face with the man with the red bandana. He revealed a map of scars and tattoos on his neck and hands as he received the blanket from Timmy’s outstretched arm.
“Thank you, son.” His soft voice matched the twinkling of his bright eyes.
We finished passing out our goodies and eventually drove away, in stunned silence. Our past hour had been an event neither one of us had ever experienced. Many faces held my gaze that night—some joyful, some lonely, some perhaps fearful. A tightness filled my chest as I pondered the numerous expressions I’d encountered. What was their story?
For Timmy and me, that one, solitary evening changed us. Not only did I admire Timmy’s tenacious pursuit to follow the cry of his heart, I was grateful for the wisdom my little boy imparted on me.
Over the next two weeks, Timmy and I did some research. We learned how food banks operate. We became aware of a social service agency where we could donate periodic items and supplies for the homeless. Best yet, we discovered a local soup kitchen, “Harvest of Hope”.
Timmy and I proudly volunteer there now . . . every Saturday.
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