The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Broken May 15, 2008

Journal Archives

Thursday, 12/22/05

I was out with the mobile soup kitchen on a feeding run tonight, and unlike most nights, the vibe was strained on the truck.  For starters, I’d arisen from my sick bed to show up for the commitment I’d previously made, realizing that in the past few weeks I’ve been writing about the homeless, thinking about them, talking about them a great deal… but that I needed to see them, touch them, talk to them — that being with them is what I love, not doing politics about them.

I felt ill on the run, alternately sweating and freezing, thinking I might pass out.  There’s nowhere to sit on the truck, and the floor was slimy with spilled soup, so we volunteers slipped and slid around as it bumped along through the downtown streets.  One of the regular volunteers was tired, which made her very sharp-edged.  When she was rude to the rest of us one too many times,  I came within an ace of walking away and hitching a ride back to my car.  It was an unusually wretched start and middle to the run, and I was determined to just endure.

Then I began talking with Joe, a homeless man we picked up at the first stop to ride with us and help us feed. Wanting to get the real lowdown, I was asking him how things were out there.  It was a grim, unflattering and unsympathetic portrait of who was out on the street and what was going on.

As the van clattered and lurched along, between bouts of bending over to slop scalding soup into paper cups, as I sweated and froze and felt I’d faint, as the grouchy volunteer barked irritable orders at everyone, as an uncharacteristically-rowdy, block-long line of ragged people milled and pushed and shoved and shouted outside the truck in front of the Day Resource Center, I thought to myself, “Now, exactly why am I doing this?”

Joe offered to do the ladling, and I stepped away to rest my back.  He was so kind to notice I was tired.  Then the director asked me to come outside the truck and ‘work on the ground,’ which I love, so it was a relief to get outside and hand people food and talk to them a little.  “How are you?  How’s it going?”  “God bless you all for being out here!” they’d say, or  “I’m OK, but I could sure use some work.”  “Joseph, I’ll pray for you.”  “Oh, thank you.”  A man getting mock angry when I let a woman be served ahead of him.  The woman giving me a hug, and then another.  “Why do the women get to go first?” a man asks.  “Does it make you men feel like chopped liver?” I joke with him.  “You call them ladies, but you call us men.”  “OK, we’ll call you gentlemen from now on!”

I was starting to loosen up, to remember, to feel what this was about.

And then I began to look into their faces, one by one, as they stepped up in line to receive their soup, sandwich, cookie and banana.  A young woman with cerebral palsy, looking brave and dignified, not wanting to meet my eyes.  A man who could barely stand, trying to signal something as he swayed away, almost as if he were crossing himself.  A woman deathly pale with a yellowish pallor to her skin and a cap pulled down that barely covered the absence of hair.  People with skin leathered and hands swollen from the cold.  Someone blind.  Someone on crutches.  So many of them thanking us, blessing us, wishing us Merry Christmas.  Loving us for loving them.  Dark faces, pale faces, every kind of face in the world.

Broken faces.  Broken, as we all are.

Beauty.  Real beauty. 

We left, and as we rumbled back toward our starting point, I thought, “This is why I do it.  To be near them.”

But, still, why?  What is the Grace that’s near them, that spills over onto me, that makes me want to be out in the cold, ladling soup, giving away sandwiches?  When I try to pin down a reason, it slides away, like mine and Joe’s tennis shoes on the soupy metal floor of the catering truck.

And then, sitting here in Barnes and Noble, drinking my hot cocoa, feeling less at odds and less resentful of the middle-class Dallas culture than I did in my first entries into this journal a year ago — accepting it, even, and my place in it, and the fact that I drive a nice car while many people have no homes…  Remembering that driving here, I drove all the way down Beverly Drive looking at the stupendous displays of Christmas lights and didn’t need to turn away in frustration, accepting that that kind of wealth is part of life, too — just observing, not judging…  

Anyway, I got it, sitting here, remembering the beauty, the desperation, the softness, the fear, the humanity, the love, the blankness, the greed, the need — in those broken faces in the crush of people outside the Day Resource Center — giving to them out of my own brokenness, as they gave to me.  I got it…

The beauty, the grace is in the brokenness.

But it makes no sense!  And when I once read that Henri Nouwen said it, I thought, well, my great hero is just wrong on this one.  Beauty in healing?  in unconditional love?  in service?  Sure.  But in brokenness?  

The only connection I can make is with Christ’s broken body on the cross.  But wasn’t the beauty in the resurrection?  The brokenness of Christ’s body I find devastating!  Do we have to be broken first in order to be healed?  Is it because only through brokenness comes the possibility of Grace?

The Spirit of Love is out there on the street, for sure — in the people themselves — surrounding them, hovering near them.  I feel the intensity of Christ’s Love there, have always felt it.

It a mystery, a magnificent mystery.

And our street people show it to me.  Every time.



3 Responses to “Broken”

  1. English Says:

    Hi Karen,

    I read this story about women living in their cars in Santa Barbara on today and thought of you. It is beyond belief that homelessness is a growing problem among the middle class of the richest nation in the world. What is happening to our country? Every time I see one of those $1 million McMansions going up I worry that Texas is heading in California’s direction. They are tearing down affordable rentals all around my condo (Lovers/Skillman/Greenville area). Where are those displaced people going to live? What if they depend on the job market of Dallas but can only afford to live in Terrell. These people can’t afford the car/gas to work.

    Have you heard anyone talk about a safe haven parking lot for homeless people with cars to sleep in at night? Do we have a middle class homeless crisis in Dallas? If not, are we very far away?

    Just curious about your thoughts.

    God bless you,


  2. Karen Shafer Says:

    Hi, English,

    So glad to hear from you. I don’t have any official figures about the middle class homeless crisis — the people I see downtown are generally the so-called ‘chronically homeless’ — but I think you are right on target about a growing problem, often for just the reasons you describe. I hear from people who feed the homeless daily that the numbers in the lines to be fed downtown are growing. On the home page of this blog I have a link to the Urban Daily Blog by Larry James at Central Dallas Ministries, and he deals frequently deals with facts and figures on housing. But to oversimplify, it seems that a very large part of the problem is cuts in funding for affordable housing at a federal level for many years.

    I’ll ask my friends at SoupMobile to give us their take on this question.

    On the parking lot issue, there was a story not to long ago about a Plano man who was sleeping in his car in a library parking lot in Plano. I can’t find the original article, but here are the links to the Plano city council’s response, and a homeless advocate’s letter about it.

    I have not heard of any safe haven parking lots in town, but that’s a good question. It could be a very useful thing, but I know there would also be objections to it city-wise, for various reasons, sanitation being one. However, where there’s public will….

    You are asking very important questions — I wish I had more answers.

    On the up side, I was at the opening of the new homeless assistance center, The Bridge, today (and I’ll write more about it later), but it’s a beautiful facility and is light years ahead of what has been done here in the past. We still have a long way to go, but what a great start.



  3. David Timothy, a.k.a. The SoupMan Says:

    Hi Karen

    Let me see if I can help you in answering some of English’s question. Hi English, nice to meet you. First I do not know of any safe havens in the Dallas area where you can sleep in a parked car in parking lots. In fact I do know that Dallas (like many big cities) does NOT encourage this activity.
    English, you asked if there was a middle class homeless crisis. Great question. In truth the homeless numbers are definitely increasing in the Dallas area. Some of those new homeless are coming from the middle class. As you know many people in our country are living on the edge financially and it doesn’t take to many missed paychecks before we can’t pay the rent or mortgage payment and before you know it you are being foreclosed on and possibly out on the streets. It happens more than you might think. I remember a time when I was feeding out of the SoupMobile’s mobile van and there was a women in the line who looked to be perhaps in her mid 50’s. She was dressed nicely, had on makeup and wore a cashmere coat that must have cost at least $500 dollars. On her face was a look of sheer terror. I could tell she was one of the ‘new’ homeless. Did I mention it happens more than you might think.
    However there is good news on the homeless front. As Karen Shafer mentioned, the City of Dallas opened a new homeless facility today called the Bridge. BTW Karen is a tireless homeless advocate. A young lady who is truly not afraid to put herself on the line to help ‘the least of these’. The SoupMobile is proud to have her as a member of our Advisory Board. The Bridge will not end the problem of homelessness in Dallas, but it is a huge step up in services for them.
    One last point. I deal with the homeless every day. I want everyone to know that the vast majority of them are good decent people. Down on their luck yes, but people just like you and me who are struggling to deal with living on the streets.
    Pray for them and pray for people like Karen who go the extra mile to help the least of these. God bless you all.
    The SoupMan

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