Our Friend Andrew takes a leap of faith and spends 24 hrs as a homeless person in the city of San Francisco. He did it to understand the people he wants to minister to. He did it to feel the type of love these individuals need. He did it because God called him to do so.
As people walked by, I put my cupped hand out, quietly asking, “Can you spare any change? I’m trying to get home.” People kept walking past me – everyday people like you and me – mothers, fathers, couples, the young and old. Most people didn’t respond. Those that did muttered half-hearted “I’m sorry” or “No.” Most couldn’t look me in the eye. I couldn’t look them in the eye either. The burden of shame made my head feel heavy – I found it hard to lift it up. It was easier to keep down. Facing their gaze would mean facing the brokenness I was experiencing at that moment.
On a cold August Saturday in 2009, I spent 24 hours as someone homeless. It was during a 7-day full food fast that I was doing to hear from God. On the 5th day, I suddenly felt led to “understand what it was like to be homeless.” Really, it came out of nowhere as I was driving. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten in 5 days but once the idea was placed in my heart, I wasn’t able to let go. Below, I walk through the experience, try to convey my thoughts and how I felt. But, the sum of it is this:
Being homeless is really, really hard.
Being on the other side of asking for money and living on the streets was an incredibly humbling experience. But now I have a stronger understanding of the people we see in the streets everyday. What I learned is this:
1. Being homeless is EXTREMELY LONELY – when you have nothing and have no one to go to, no where to go, you are nothing but alone. You feel the loneliness in the depth of your bones and it makes the chill nights feel even colder.
2. On top of that you’re always being REJECTED – whether or not you’re begging for money or just trying to get out of people’s way, there are eyes of disdain, eyes of ignorance, or eyes of pity cast upon you. Looks that are so intangible, yet immediately felt in a blink of a glance.
3. Being homeless is NOT EASY, THERE IS NO OPPORTUNITY – we think “if only they just got a job” – but because you’re impoverished, doors are automatically shut. And when I was there, I just had no idea where to go, what to do – even if I wanted to make money I couldn’t. In those 24 hours I had no resources to help myself even if I wanted to.
4. You’re constantly REMINDED OF WHAT YOU CAN’T HAVE – fasting for 7 days I was starving. I was poor and couldn’t buy anything. Yet I was surrounded by advertisements of delicious food I couldn’t afford, surrounded by people who were enjoying their evenings, partaking in activities I had no ability to partake in. I couldn’t even afford a small hamburger. The poor see this everyday – surrounded by everything that they can’t have. Every reminder made me sad.
5. Finally, being homeless has NO ESCAPE FOR COMFORT – there is nowhere to rest your head, even when you sleep, you sleep on the hard concrete pavement…. The benches are all metal or wood, there are no seats of cushion or beds. When you need rest, it can’t be found.
My experience was only 24 hours long. I tried to imagine if I had to experience this kind of life for 2 months, 12 months, 10 years, or even a lifetime. It was unfathomable.
To some extent, I can now say “I understand.” After living a night on the streets, I have a new understanding for what it means to be homeless. Sometimes we criticize or are afraid that if we give money to someone poor, they’ll use it for cigarettes or alcohol or something. But just after one night, one day of misery, being tired, uncomfortable and rejected, I can understand now. If that one cigarette provides that person even a moment of escape from the life that they’re living at that time, then you know what – it really is okay.
By being able to identify with the sufferings of another, I find it easier to relate, cross thresholds, even make friends. And that’s what I’ve come to understand about Jesus’ desire for Justice and Mercy. While these are virtues in and of themselves and result in the benefit of “good,” it is the acts of Justice and Mercy, taken in “love” that open doors to relationships. We are always called (meaning “God’s calling” or “our calling”) to a people or people group. People will always be an element of our daily lives and missions. And thus, through these relationships (even the most impossible ones where we are enemies or have absolutely nothing in common with each other), the Kingdom of Heaven is extended. That’s the example Jesus set right? He gave up all what He had to be with us, who are so broken and fallen. And yet, he sat and ate with us, the liars and cheats, idolators and prostitutes. And so now, every opportunity I have to extend a hand, sit with, talk to, and break bread with those who are different (like the homeless), I try to take because in it, I experience a bit of the Kingdom and a whole lot of God’s love. Often times, the same fears I have always had, such as “I don’t have enough time to stop and help,” “Are they going to use this money for alcohol or drugs?” or “I just don’t want to give right now” still win out. And so, it is the reflection on this experience that God reminds me to give more grace and more mercy, to those in need, because He first did so for me.
First email to friends, setting off on the mission —————————————————————————————-
Tonight I’m going to be embarking on a journey and want to ask for your prayers/thoughts behind it. I’m emailing you because you’re close friends of mine and might understand my reasons for doing this. Most of you know that I have been fasting from all foods and only drinking juices/tea for the last 6 days to hear God’s calling for me in this part of my life. Being completely open to where God has been leading me, yesterday, in a state of delirium/daze I got a vision of God leading me into the city (SF) and sleep on the streets and spend time with people/homeless and was strongly convicted about it. I felt God telling me to go and there he would continue to reveal himself and speak to me. The plan was to go and come back in the morning. But like Jonah, I chickened out and made excuses not to go. But I’ve been further convicted about it today/this morning and in the same vein as Jonah and Ninevah, now God has upped the bar.
So, tonight I’ll be going to San Francisco and spending the night there in the streets and I’m not sure when I’m going to come back.
Here are the stipulations of my journey there tonight:
· TRANSPORTATION: I’ll be taking the train in, on a one way ticket, parking my car at the train station in Santa Clara, leaving at 7pm tonight
· PROVISIONS: I’m only taking with me these things in one backpack
· One bottle of water
· Bible, Small note pad and pen
· Eye drops & Mouth wash
· A blanket
· Driver’s license, list of hand written phone numbers, and $2 in quarters
· Cup and piece of cardboard for begging for money (just in case)
· Some things I’ll bring with me just in case I meet someone in need –
· I will not be bringing my phone, wallet, credit cards, or anything that I can depend on to “be safe” – I have no way to call anyone to come get me or save me or no way to buy a train ticket home or no way to buy food or anything of my own means – the point is dependence upon God’s provision.
· LOCATION: I’ll probably be meeting people and sleeping in the streets of SOMA, it’s where I’m most familiar but who knows where I’ll wander to and actually end up sleeping…
· GETTING HOME: I’ll have to trust in God to get me back to the South Bay – in the morning after I wake up, I’ll need to find enough money to buy a train ticket to get me back to Santa Clara – this means I’ll probably have to panhandle and ask/beg for money from people in order to get home
· SAFETY CHECKS: My goal is to be able to get a ticket in time for 1030 service at GrX Santa Clara, but the likely hood of that happening is slim (but if God makes it happen, then awesome!). If I don’t make it to GrX Santa Clara as my first check point, if I don’t get enough money to make it back to the South Bay, my last check point will be to walk to GrX San Francisco which starts at 5pm. If I don’t make it to GrX SF it probably means something happened to me and you should send out a search party ;), hehe jk. Sorta. If I make it to GrX SF, I’ll probably have to end up borrowing some money to get back to the South Bay. If you try calling my cell phone throughout the day and I don’t return your call by 10pm on Sunday night… well… yeah I dunno.
· BREAKING FAST: I was planning to break fast on Sunday night with some DELICIOUS BBQ (anybody know where there is GREAT BBQ???) but if throughout Sunday God provides enough money for me to buy a meal and share with a homeless friend, then I’ll break fast with him/her.
Anyway, that’s the story! Please pray for me that:
a. I meet with God, hear from Him, that he reveals himself to me
b. I am able to bless others along the way
c. Somehow, I understand love even more
Thank you. God bless.
Recap of events, reciting my experience ———————————————————————————-
8pm – Pack my bag with blanket and bottled water. I put a old jacket with a hood, a brown tshirt and cargo pants. I figure they will be warm enough and it’ll make me seem like a runaway teenager. I bring with me only $2 in change. Drive to train station, leave my car there with a one-way ticket to SF.
830pm – think to myself, “there’s no turning back, I’m on a train with no money and no cell phone. This is for real, I’m going to sleep in the city tonight because there is no other option for me.”
930pm – step off the caltrain. It’s dark already. Start heading towards SOMA, to areas that I know homeless people hang out.
10pm – Walking around SOMA, I begin to go into survival mode. Two goals for tonight – 1) find a place to sleep 2) think about how to make money to get home tomorrow. I walk past a few places some homeless guys were sleeping but they were in major streets with lots of traffic and lots of people walking by, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable doing so. I keep going deeper into SOMA to look for a place to sleep.
1030pm – Arrive at the capital building. A lot of homeless people are hanging out here. There’s a park and a couple large buildings where people are just sitting around. It doesn’t have a lot of people traffic which is good since its safer from the drunk clubbers. I walk around and see a couple places that seem like they’d make good sleeping places. I find a large government building with three large tall windows indented into the building, which provides some coverage and shadows to sleep in. One of the windows is already taken by someone sleeping there. I decide it’s too early to sleep and will come back later. I sit down on a bench just to get a feeling for the people who are hanging out there. A couple old guys are hangin’ out but they’re a little bit nuts. I make a not that SF homeless seem to be a lot more mentally unstable than those I’ve met in NYC.
11pm – Walking around, I decide to try panhandling a bit, in preparation for tomorrow. I notice Wicked is just getting out so I try to position myself amongst the flow of people leaving the theatre. I sit there but realize no words are coming out of my mouth. I realize it’s going to be hard to beg for money – it’s really humiliating. It takes a lot of courage to do. I get up and go stand up against a wall on a corner. After a number of people walk by ask “spare any change?” to a few people who pass by. They all ignore me and barely acknowledge I even said anything. I’m standing there, like a drug dealer. Some girl walks by and as she passes she asks “are you okay?” she looks back as she passes me. I’m stunned that she asked and didn’t know what to say and so I just smile and nod. Not sure if that’s what I should have done. Might have been interesting talking to her but too late she walked away.
1130pm – It’s getting late, I made no money and decide it’s time to sleep. So I walk back to the government building and find my pre-selected spot still available. I sit down in the shadows, pull out the think blanket from my bag and fashion my bag into a pillow. The paved cement is cold. I lie down, and pull the covers over me and close my eyes. It’s really cold. It’s really hard. It’s really uncomfortable.
12pm-5am – I spend early parts of the night trying to shift positions, fighting between wanting to stay warm and wanting to be comfortable. I begin to realize that the thin blanket is no match for the cold SF air. If I lay out extended for comfort, I get cold because my legs and arms have no heat insulation. But if I pull in and stay warm and curl up into a ball, I’m not very comfortable. It’s cold. I have my hood over my head and bring the blanket completely over my head. People passing by would only see a blue blob of blanket. Covering my entire body protects my face from the cold wind. And it also makes me feel safer. If people can’t see who I am then I just become a faceless object and they won’t bother me. And many people do pass by me. I hear the footsteps but no one stops. I don’t turn to see who they are, just hoping they pass by. I just want to be left alone. Somehow I manage to fall asleep. But my dreams the entire night were about how cold I was. Yet there was hope in the dreams. I dreamt that I kept meeting my friends and that if I could just remember to ask them for some money, they could help me get home.
6am – It didn’t feel like I slept at all but I must have since it’s getting light out and I didn’t remember just laying there. But it’s not the light the woke me up. It was the extreme morning cold. I realized the morning mist had made everything around me wet and placed a layer of dew on my blanket, which only invited the cold morning air into my small pocket of warmth. It became so cold that I decide to sit up and try to sleep curled into the tightest ball I could. After that didn’t work I realized I should just get up and walk around. So I pack up my stuff and started walking around deliriously.
630am – I think to myself, “if I’m going to make money today I need a cup.” I have a sign I made at home but no cup to collect change. So I need to get some coffee. But I only have $2 and I need to save some of that change just in case I need to call a friend from a pay phone. Therefore, I can only afford $1 cup of coffee. Most of my morning is spent walking all over the city just to find a $1 cup of coffee. McD’s and burger king all sell $1.39 coffee – of which I can’t afford. It takes a lot of energy to find something within resources. I can’t buy food or anything. I finally find a small shop that sells a $1 cup. I drink it, wipe it out and stick it in my bag for later.
730am – Now I just really need to pee. I walk far and wide to look for an inviting bathroom but find none. I start to get tired and find a nice bench area near the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I sit down. I lean my head back. I fall asleep for 45 minutes.
830am – I wake up and deliriously walk around the corner, not realizing I was sleeping right next to St.Patrick’s Catholic Church. The doors are open. I love cathedrals, they are so beautiful. I always walk into them. So I walk in, and realize mass is about to start. So I take a seat in the back. I sit through an entire catholic mass. The message is about serving the poor, ironically. I take communion. Wondered why God led me into there but it was good.
10am – I walk towards the train station and finally find a nice restroom in a Safeway. I’m no scrubby enough to get kicked out. I guess I still have some luxuries afforded by my clean clothes. Some one really homeless wouldn’t have been able to use that store’s bathroom. Feeling relieved, I step out and realize that area isn’t so good for begging for money. But I realize a lot of people are dressed in SF Giants. Lucky dog! Lots of ppl traffic at a ball game. So I head toward the stadium.
1030am – I sit myself down in front of the people traffic, pullout my premade sign, pull my hood over my head and hold up my cup. I sit here for 1.5 hours. Just waiting for people to come by and drop change into my cup. I counted. 150 people walk by before 1 person drops any change into my cup. During that time frame, only 5 people gave me money. Begging for money is a really, really hard job. Its really hard to look anyone in the eye. I was really humbled.
12pm – I make $3.13.
1230pm – I am tired and realize it will take all day to make the $8 I need to hop a train home. I’ve learned enough. I take my change and go to a pay phone and call Hoon. I find out he’s only 15 blocks away so I walk to him, where he will save me – feed me lunch and give me a train ticket home. God provided – $3.13 and a good friend to come save me. I was ready to go home.
2pm – hope a train home. Pass out on the ride home.
330pm – Get into car. Go home. Shower. Rest.
Editor’s note: When I heard Andrew’s story, I felt empowered. We as ordinary people are capable of great compassion and extreme tactics. What Andrew did was bold and drastic. It might not be the path for all of us. However, let’s not ignore God’s calling and go ALL IN to the ministry He has called us to. Let’s put ourselves in a situation where we are being stretched to our own limits and grow to be fully reliant upon the power of Christ. He will catch you. He will support you. He will protect you. He will be everything you need. I hope this serves as an encouragement to all to start living drastically for Him.