Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Sleeping Among the Homeless on the Hard Streets of Dallas
by David Timothy (AKA SoupMan)
In 2003, on a wing and a prayer (s) I started a nonprofit charity called the SoupMobile. We are a ‘mobile’ soup kitchen that feeds the homeless in the Dallas area. In those five years we have progressed from serving 5,000 meals per year to serving over 125,000 meals per year. The SoupMobile has changed from a virtual one-man operation to an organization that has an army of volunteers, donors, supporters and prayer warriors.
During this past five years I have worked the homeless streets of Dallas on almost a daily basis. And while my given name is David Timothy, on the streets of Dallas the homeless call me the SoupMan. During that time I have been privileged to meet and come to know thousands upon thousands of homeless men and women. I have fed them, bandaged their cuts and wounds, become friends with them, laughed with them, cried with them, visited them in jail, sat with them in the large cardboard boxes they call home, watched them fail miserably, and at times watched them succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Yet there was one thing I hadn’t done. I had never slept overnight on the streets among the homeless.
In the winter of 2007 I decided I would forgo my cushy bed and peaceful nights behind locked doors and venture out onto the hard streets of Dallas. I decided to do this for two reasons. One was to show solidarity and support for my homeless friends, and the second was to find out ‘up close and personal’ what it was like to sleep on the streets just like the homeless do every night. I did not tell anyone of my plans. I knew if I did they would try to talk me out of it. I was committed and determined to follow through. So during the winter of 2007, I slept out on the streets overnight with the homeless on two separate occasions.
I carried a backpack loaded with a thin blanket, a bottled water, a sandwich and a granola bar. I carried $2.00 in my pocket. I had made it a point not to eat any food that day. I wanted to hit the streets feeling the same hunger the homeless did. I did not take my car, but put on my backpack and hiked to the location where I would be sleeping outside with the homeless. That first night out on the streets was not a fun night. It wasn’t like sleeping in the backyard of my house in a tent when I was a kid. In fact it was cold, dark and windy. I’m not embarrassed to admit that it was a little scary. There were no locked doors, no police protection, and I had to fall asleep trusting that none of the hundreds of people sleeping around me would do me wrong.
Here are some of my impressions of that first night. As I lay upon a slab of blacktop and was huddled under my thin blanket, I noticed how incredibly cold it was. It seemed the blacktop just radiated the cold right up into my bones. Of course there was no thermostat to turn up the heat, and I couldn’t go into my closet to get an extra blanket. And just like the hundreds of other homeless people out there, I was on my own. I carefully hoarded the small amount of food that I brought with me. I knew once it was gone, that was it. No midnight visits to the fridge and no late night trips to the 7/11 store.
One of the moments I will never forget was about midnight when I was finally able to start to drift off to sleep. In those final minutes as my breathing slowed and my eyelids started to droop, I realized I was going to be sleeping and had absolutely no protection against anyone doing me harm. No locked doors, no police protection, and no recourse if trouble started. For me those last few minutes before I fell to sleep were the diciest moments of the entire affair.
Finally sleep came, and then all too suddenly I heard voices shouting. Okay, ‘time to get up, get a move on’. It was 5:30 AM, pitch black, and some security guy was moving us off the blacktop parking lot where we had bedded down for the night. We all scurried about gathering up our things and getting ready to hit the road. No morning cup of coffee, no hot breakfast, no reading the morning paper, and no early morning conversations with your fellow nighttime blacktop bunk mates.
The first thing I noticed as I was gathering up my belongings was that it was even more incredibly cold, and I had absolutely no way to get warm. After a night of sleeping on the blacktop my bones were stiff and my hands seemed frozen. And I was hungry. The night before I had decided to save my granola bar. Oh, was I glad I did! I greedily opened up the wrapping and carefully ate every bit of the bar, even the crumbs. I even licked the wrapper when I was finished. So with breakfast over I finished packing up. Security kept pushing us to get going. In those next few moments hundreds of homeless people started moving out in different directions and vanishing into the pitch black morning that seemed as if it was still night.
As I moved out with stiff limbs and cramped cold feet, I knew where I was heading. I was hiking it back to my place. But that hike back wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Here I was hiking through deserted dark streets with a backpack on my back and $2.00 in my pocket. I felt like a marked man. I was alone and had absolutely no one else to rely on if trouble materialized. What if some unscrupulous guys decided I was an easy mark? What could I give them if I was stopped? My two dollars? Somehow I didn’t think they would be satisfied with that.
I also felt like a marked man in another way. What if the police saw me hiking through the darkened streets at 6:00 AM in the morning with a backpack on? Would they think I was up to no good? Would they ask what the heck I was doing out there? What would I tell them? Hey officers, its okay, I’m the SoupMan, and I just wanted to spend a night out with my homeless friends to show them support. Oh yeah, I’m sure that would have been totally convincing.
Fortunately I made it home safely that first night without any trouble from the bad guys or the police. So having survived that first night sleeping with the homeless, I decided I needed to do it one more time just to be sure that the first time out had been the real thing. A few weeks later I ventured out again and slept on that same blacktop parking lot with hundreds of homeless people. Guess what. It was almost an identical repeat of the first time. Still no fun, still dark, still cold, still hungry and I still felt like a marked man as I hiked back home in the dark the next morning.
So what did this whole experience do for me? Well, it gave me an empathy for the homeless that went beyond anything I had ever known. I had already built up an incredible compassion for the homeless as I had fed them the last five years, but now it went even deeper. In those two nights I got to experience what they have to go through every night. All the uncertainty, all the fear, all the hunger and the feeling of being a marked man.
It also gave me a renewed thankfulness to the Lord for what I do have. Whenever I get the urge to complain or grumble about my circumstances, I just think back to those two nights on the streets, and I quickly look upward and thank the Lord for what I do have. I am truly a blessed man!
David Timothy is the founder and Executive Director of the SoupMobile. The preceding story will be included in his upcoming book on his experiences. Stay tuned!