I’ve heard it said that generally what homeless people essentially long for is for someone to care about them. To look them in the eye, learn their name, and ask about their day — that kind of thing. And I’ve agreed with that in theory.
But today I agree with that in practice. Because today I met Laura.
See, on the way home from work, I stopped at Target for ice cream. (Nothing else. Just ice cream. Because I drive by a Ben & Jerry’s cookie core billboard every other day and today I finally caved to the cravings.) When it was time to check out, I realized I had no cash, paid for my ice cream with a credit card, and requested cash back. After tucking the cash into my wallet and the wallet into my purse, I headed out to my car.
Before I could get to my car, a young woman approached me. She had long brown hair and tanned skin and maybe half of her teeth. She had a massive bruise on her forehead and a khaki bucket hat trying in vain to cover the bulging bruise.
Shyly, she asked if I maybe had any money to help her get to a motel that night.
[Confession: I have never given money to a stranger. Occasionally food or water, but never money. And I probably wouldn’t have this time except that literally five days ago, at a women’s Bible study, where we’ve been discussing the Sermon on the Mount and the beatitudes in particular, we discussed the topic of mercy. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Our Bible study leader that day challenged us very specifically to think about how we react to the homeless people we see daily on our city streets, how we have or have not shown them mercy in the past, and how we might extend mercy moving forward.]
Standing there outside Target, I stopped and sighed and sincerely considered giving her my Ben & Jerry’s (maybe even grabbing two spoons and eating it right there with her on the sidewalk!) and settled on saying this: “What’s your name?”
“Laura,” she said.
“And how are you doing today, Laura?” I asked, genuinely not sure where this was going or how long I intended to play counselor in the parking lot.
“I’m hanging in there,” Laura said, sounding both strong and sad. We looked at each other. Then, looking away, she added: “You’re gonna make me cry with all these questions.”
“I just want you to know I care about you,” I said slowly. And, sighing again, I reached into my purse and slipped out some of my newly-acquired cash — because how in the world, I thought, could I spend money on my own frivolous, dairy-based desires and then turn around and spend nothing on this new friend facing real fundamental needs? Handing it to her, I said: “Please be safe tonight, OK?”
As I walked away, she called quietly after me: “Hey. Thanks for caring.”
Now, I’m not saying that I did everything right, that I changed Laura’s life, or that she changed mine (although maybe she did, just a little bit). There’s questions to be asked, social issues to be raised, and things I could have done differently in my meeting with Laura. Various parts of me wish that I’d stayed with her longer, offered her something more, taken her to a homeless shelter, women’s shelter, or hospital.
For now, what I’m saying is this: There’s power in presence. There’s power in story. I’ve experienced it time and time again. There’s power in stopping and sighing and sincerely considering spending something on behalf of someone — spending time, spending money, spending something.
What if, I wonder, we looked into the eyes of more Lauras — whether that’s baristas or barbers, neighbors or no-names? What if we learned their name? Asked about their day?
What if we had more conversations that left people calling quietly after us: “Hey. Thanks for caring.”