by Jack Hamlin
Two weeks ago I made a nearly annual sojourn to the County Courthouse to do my civic duty; jury service. I go through the exercise on a regular basis knowing full well as an ex-cop, retired trial attorney, former judge pro tem, current law instructor and restorative justice mediator I am the equivalent of Satan to any trial attorney looking for an impartial juror. But it is my duty and it gives me a chance to meander around downtown during the ludicrously long lunch hour.
When I played with the big boys years ago, Dobson’s was a favorite watering hole (my brass plate is still directly above Bill Kolender’s), and quite frankly the mussel bisque is beyond compare. Things change and time passes so when I arrived at Dobson’s for lunch after a fifteen year hiatus, Paul’s white hair was a bit of shock. His smile and the bisque, however, remained unchanged. After lunch we spent a few minutes catching up. I have been working with a mutual friend, Don, preparing meals for the hungry every couple of weeks at Sacred Heart in OB. He smiled and told me it looked and sounded as if I had finally found a path with which I felt rewarded… I agreed.
I left sated, physically and emotionally, with half an uneaten sandwich, returning to the courthouse. At the corner of 3rd Avenue and Broadway I saw a familiar face. For this essay, I will call her, “Street Flower.” She was one of our homeless in OB, one of the young travelers, one of those whom ate the food we prepared, one of those who attended our first forum on the homelessness issues with her little shepherd mix asleep at her feet. I remember Street Flower because of the primitive looking tattoo on her calf which read words to the effect, “Is this for real or a joke.” Someday I will ask her if it is a comment on life.
Well, there sat Street Flower, the lunch crowd swirling around her, with her sign asking for a handout, her little dog asleep on the well worn blanket next to her. I knew I was probably going to toss the half eaten calamari sandwich in the frig and forget about it, so I asked if she had eaten yet today. Street Flower had not eaten yet and was thankful for the sandwich. I commented I had not seen in her in OB for awhile, but glad to see she was “okay.” She told me after the forums, there was a group of very aggressive people in OB who just would not let up on her and her friends. She had enough of the “aggro” and moved to Downtown. I asked her about friends, and she told friends were hard to come by Downtown, and it was less safe for her as girl, but she did not get the daily hassles she did in OB, and that was worth it.
I left her wondering what has become of us in OB…
Fast forward to last Thursday. My father and I had just finished our weekly breakfast at Newbreak Coffee Company on Abbott Street and were headed to the Cliffs to exercise his legs on a walk. As we approached the foot of Newport, four police cars were stopped in a blocking formation in the driveway and lot. I thought it must be a fairly serious event. But as I passed I could see four police officers “FI-ing” and checking warrants on a group of young homeless kids on the seawall. There were maybe ten travelers in all, submissively sitting on the wall as the police put them all through the paces of the daily harassment….but then I thought, my perceptions were tainted.
Tainted with sympathy for those who have less than me. Tainted by the vision of submissive people being cowed by authoritarian figures with guns and badges. Tainted by the recent encounters I have had with the police in OB as being some of the most small-minded, officious individuals I have encountered in sometime. Tainted by my encounters with the homeless and hungry at the bi-weekly dinners in which they are so grateful for what we do. So after snapping a couple of photographs (camera telephones do have their place) I decided to find out what the hub-bub was all about.
I took my father for our walk and afterward I went back to find the kids. They are regulars at the Tuesday night dinner and were not difficult to find. In fact, they have a sort of de facto leader I will call “Norm,” who is a second generation street person. I met him at the first forum and found him to be insightful and reflective. He leads a very simple life and those with whom he travels he considers family… not a gang. He and several of the kids were sitting on the curb by the “artwork” at the foot of Newport sharing a meal of Mexican food.
I asked Norm what had happened earlier. He told me they had been sitting on the sea wall when the police arrived, in a sort of “nobody move, nobody gets hurt” posture. The kids were informed the police had received a report of a “kid with dreads who had a knife.” I asked whether or not it had been alleged the kid had done anything with the knife, and Norm said “no, just a kid with dreads with a knife.” For the record, none of the kids on the wall had dreads. Norm told me they use that type of report to roust everyone, field interviews, warrant checks, searches for drugs, the usual suspect round-up. They were all polite to me and spoke without anger. With so little in their young lives, they have so much in their heads and hearts, and carry so much on their backs.
Last night, after watching a glorious sunset which alone could be the subject of an essay itself, my gal and I took a stroll through the town. As we reached the end of Newport, the end of America, several of the young homeless were moving along the boardwalk, I assume looking for their nightly abode. One very young girl, in a light sundress, wet from the Ocean and shivering, and from her speech and coordination, drunk, was being cared for by another young boy who diligently tried to wrap her in old sleeping bag. He implored passersby for, “a nug for the nugless.” He too had been drinking…
As the citizenry of OB, homeless and housed, passed by the duo they were ignored. Even the homeless have their limits I suppose. I wondered and hope the girl and the boy would be safe for the night, and even 11th and Island Detox would provide sanctuary for the night.
I felt disappointed there was nothing I could do for the young couple, and so my gal and I walked back up Newport. As we passed the storefront of the old In Between (now slated to be a much needed drinkery), we ran into Norm and several of his family. They were laughing and singing, Norm was doing some sort of dance. When they saw me, they stopped and said “hello,” asking how we were doing. Just a brief conversation between a group of humans with other humans… friendly and respectful.
My gal and I had dinner at one of the Mexican restaurants (no endorsements here) and walked back down Newport Avenue on our way home. Across from the Hostel, I stopped to take a very touristy photograph of the Peace Symbol atop the Hostel, at one time the symbol of OB. Out of the corner of my eye, three of the older homeless waited in the dark, patiently to ask for spare change. When I finished, they did ask. I would rather feed than fund. I told them no cash today, but told them I would make sure they were fed on Tuesday. It was then through their damaged minds they remembered me; the cook who wears the distinctive hat. And with their recognition they thanked me. No further requests for money, just a simple, “thank you, sir.” And then as we made our way a “God bless you.”
“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying,
Blessed are the poor in spirit : for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn : for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek : for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness : for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful : for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart : for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers : for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad : for great is your reward in heaven : for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted ? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.
Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.
Both do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shines unto all that are in the house.
Even so let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
Matthew V: 1-16
We are a community of human beings. Some of us are making our way through life really quite well, while others not so well. As I re-read my favorite Biblical passage I realize once again intolerance, hatred and anger are not characteristics the Carpenter spoke of as being blessed. And for those who are not into His teachings and thoughts, the Buddha also speaks continually of our obligation to relieve the suffering of others as being one of the highest states of mindfulness.
My faith, life, experience has taught me action is what matters. I have quit judging others as much as possible… I really do not want to be judged myself. So when I see the faces of the homeless, young or old, beaten, tired, angry, and even sometimes a little crazed, I look deep and can find the face of God looking back at me… and another opportunity to do the work of humanity. What brought them to my metaphorical door is not my concern. It is what I do once they knock is what is important.
One of the main issues which came from the Homelessness Forums this last summer and autumn was a request from the community for the faith-community to play a larger role in not only homelessness issues, but issues which impact the community as a whole. Our hand has been extended openly to all of you. Will you work with us?