Monday, July 20, 2009
There are occasionally people who impact one’s life significantly, even if you rarely see them. For me, Tommy is one of those.
Tommy lives on the street and is always alone. It is said of him that he won’t talk, but sometimes there are exceptions. One of the people he’s always trusted is our mutual friend, Trey. Trey is one of those earth angels to our homeless friends who does a very great deal to help them — and has for years — but does it all quietly and behind the scenes, with no fanfare. He’s an important part of Tommy’s safety net, often buying him clothes and checking on him, and Trey will be moving out of town soon with his wife and young children. So Tommy is strongly on my mind these days, knowing that an important link in his support network will soon be missing.
I saw Tommy this week at a monthly meeting that we both attend. I usually sit at the same table with him at the meeting, but this week our tables were adjacent. During a speech by someone that got a little lengthy, I looked over at him and he was looking my way. He made the motion of casting a fishing line off into the distance and reeling it in, then cut a look back at me and flashed a rare, enigmatic smile. I laughed. “Somebody needs to reel in this speaker,” he was telling me.
I’ve known Tommy for a number of years, back from the time of the Day Resource Center when I used to volunteer there on Friday evenings, tagging along with Our Calling Ministries because they’d let me give away clothing I’d collected for our homeless friends after the ministry had served a hot, home-cooked meal to several hundred street people on the DRC parking lot. Although his is a sizable physical presence, Tommy is so quiet and still that it is somehow possible to be almost unaware that he’s around. I remember going away from a freezing cold evening on that urine-soaked parking lot and thinking, “Wait a minute? Who was that person in a large army-green trench coat standing stock still most of the night, all on his own in the shadows?” I had the feeling it had been an apparition. Then I had the strangest thought — that it was Christ Himself among us. I still think that thought was right.
Soon Trey introduced me to him, and from that time on I made a point of saying, “Hi, Tommy,” whether or not he responded, but often he did. Then one night in prayer circle, he was suddenly standing next to me and even held my hand. From then on, I would often look up to find him standing nearby when I was handing out clothing, and sometimes we would have a brief conversation.
I wonder if Tommy mostly refuses to speak with people because sometimes his words don’t come out as he wants them to. After this week’s meeting, I asked him if he needed some new clothes, as he tends to wear what he has down to the bitter end of its usefulness (and way past its cleanliness), and he replied, in his soft drawl, “Wellll… I could use some shoes, or whatever you can get.” I looked at his shoes, which have become well-vented over the summer through coming apart at the seams. He told me his shoe size, and then, as has often happened when I talk to him, he began to speak further, but his words came out in a jumble. (The words themselves are sometimes of the so-big-that-average-people-have-to-consult-a-dictionary variety.) I saw him wince almost imperceptibly, as though he himself was surprised by it, and I tried not to register discomfiture but rather to go on with the conversation as though I understood. This somehow seems to reassure him. Although we both knew I didn’t get it all, it was OK, because we had made a connection.
One night on the DRC parking lot a few years back, I asked him if he wanted me to help him look for housing through a new program that Central Dallas Ministries was starting called Destination Home. “No,” he said, “you see, I’m mentally ill…” and then his words continued in a stream but went off in an obtuse direction and were spoken so softly that I couldn’t understand them. “OK,” I said when he was finished.
Somehow all of the highly-publicized help we are giving people who are experiencing homelessness in Dallas through our city services — and our arresting, ticketing, jailing and trying to force them into mental health care for which there’s inadequate funding to keep them there — as well as our efforts to transition them into housing that’s woefully insufficient because nobody wants ‘the homeless’ in their ‘hood — somehow all of this costly and much-touted assistance is passing Tommy by. The only place I’ve seen him safe and cared for is The Stewpot. But he still lives on the street and sleeps in the open. I continually ask myself how he survives.
When we can find a place for Tommy (and the many others like him) in ‘our world’… a place that is safe, that he can trust, where he can be cared for and be able to care for himself, a place that is clean and out of harm’s way… on that day, I’ll be willing to concede: we will have made a good start on solving the problem of homelessness in Dallas. But not until then.