Friday, September 25, 2009

A Story That's Not Newsworthy----Or is it?

This is a story that you definitely won't see on CNN, or in the newspapers. The media would deem it unimportant--not newsworthy. It is just a simple, feel-good story about two people helping someone in trouble. The "someone" in this story is me.

It was the last Sunday in May--on Interstate 70, some 35 or 40 miles east of Denver. My Greyhound bus had pulled into a roadside rest area to provide the driver an "emergency" rest stop. I also made a quick trip to the men's room, taking a little longerthan the driver, but no more than a minute or two at most. When I came out, the bus was already down the highway--getting smaller and smaller. I felt the ultimate fear and panic of most bus riders--I had been left behind. My first thought was, "Thank heaven, it's not January, when bitter winter winds whip across the highway". Yes, there's always something to be thankful for. Then, more serious thoughts took over. This park was not a regular rest stop, and the next bus through, which was seven hours away, would not be pulling into this somewhat secluded area. What little traffic existed was speeding by at 70 miles per hour and was not apt to stop for a hitchhiker. Anything I might need, including medication, was in my carry-on bag on the bus. I had four or five minutes to ponder my dilemma, before I welcomed the most beautiful RV I have ever seen into the rest area. It was one of those RVs that are as big as a bus and usually have a smaller vehicle in tow. This one had a jeep. I approached the RV, which I reckoned was there to give the occupants a few minutes to stretch their legs. Initially, I was understandably rebuffed as I attempted to explain my situation. Once given the opportunity to tell my story, however, I was invited inside the RV, which belongs to Mike and Kay Stokes, of Champaign, Illinois. They were on their way to Breckenridge, Colorado, and their route did not come close to downtown Denver, my destination. Bottom line, Mike and Kay went way out of their way to take me to Denver, and downtown to the Greyhound terminal. In the process of performing an act of kindness above and beyond, they made their arrival in Breckenridge much later than planned and incurred unexpected expense. Through it all, Mike and Kay never let me feel that I was inconveniencing them--which, of course, I was. I think that there is a message for all of us in what Mike and Kay did that day. There are a lot of wonderful people out there doing a lot of very nice things--proving that there is hope for this old world of ours. Isn't it nice to read a feel-good story that isn't newsworthy? But, then, maybe it is!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

(Almost) No One Will Ever Know

From time to time, we learn of an extraordinary homeless advocacy success story.

An example is the good work done by the Community Partnership For Homelessness in Miami, which helped Desmond Meade lift himself from nine years of intermittent homelessness and alcohol abuse, to four years of being "clean", with realistic hope of admission to law school.

Desmond will be talking about his amazing transformation, and the help he received, at the Episcopal Charities Mission of Grace luncheon next Thursday at the Rusty Pelican Restaurant in Key Biscayne.

But for every story that provides public recognition for the efforts and success of an organization such as Community Partnership, there are so many, many more success stories that go untold.

What the public hears is only the tip of the iceberg. For every Desmond Meade, there are countless other success stories that the public will never know. One of the "others" is Dwayne, whom I met while we were both being helped by the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition in Key West.

Dwayne was fresh from prison, with a long history of involvement with drugs. He was bitter, and he could be mean, but somehow we became friends.

The Neece Center, where we stayed, is under the supervision of Chris Welts, a compassionate, but firm manager of men. Chris has a wonderful way with people who are on their way back, and he had a calming effect on Dwayne.

Still, after a while, Dwayne disappeared. No one knew where he went, and no one--including Chris-- had any idea that any of Chris's message had sunk in.

Then, a few months ago, I ran into Dwayne again. It was outside Baker City, Oregon, at a truck stop. My bus had stopped there to give passengers a smoke break.

On the way to the men's room, I bumped into someone, who walked a few steps past me, and then turned and shouted, "Bill!" It was Dwayne, who bear-hugged me, and slapped me on the back, and said, in between expletives, how happy he was to see me.

He had somehow gotten his truck driver's license back, and he was operating an eighteen-wheeler out of his home state of Michigan. He was obviously drug-free and he had a happy look about him.

Within the few minutes I was with him, he mentioned Chris and FKOC over and over--which I relay to Chris every time I see him. Dwayne is truly appreciative of the help he was given--the message did get through.

But like Desmond, Dwayne is a homeless advocacy success story--that (almost) no one will ever know.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Where Do You Go When There's No Place To Go?

This morning, as I passed through the Chain of Parks on my way to the Tallahassee Library, I saw a sign that I hadn't noticed before. It is a small sign mounted to a stake not more than a foot above the ground. Its location and my vision (or lack thereof) explain how I could have missed it heretofore. It reads simply "Park Hours: Sunrise To Sunset". I immediately thought of Benitta. The morning that I first came across her in the park, I assumed-- that when she said she was on the street-- she meant that she had been on that park bench all night. Knowing now that she wasn't, I wonder where she could have spent those overnight hours. I realize now that she may well have literally been on the street--walking dusk 'til dawn. Having been in that position myself, my heart sank. I am all the more troubled because I have lost contact with Benitta. No replies to my emails. No voice mail for leaving messages. I am worried, as I wonder where she is. Where do you go, when there's no place to go?

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Winds Of Change Are Blowing

Getting off the bus this morning, there was a chill to the Denver air that I haven't felt for a while. It was a reminder that autumn officially arrives in a few days, and that winter will soon follow. Then I won't be visiting Denver as much--if at all--because the Colorado weather can wreak havoc with travel planning.

Glenn, the Greyhound security guard, spoke again today of the time last winter when dozens of people were stranded for 48 hours in the terminal while a winter storm shut down everything in the area, including interstate routes 70 and 80.

Even if I return to Denver in the weeks ahead, a lot will have changed. A lot will be missing.....those breathtaking orange and red sunrises that through much of the summer matched my time of arrival.....the riot of color in those massive flower beds at the civic center.....those leisurely conversations with the vendors on the 16th-street mall....and so much more.

I will also miss working in Denver, which seems to me to be the center of the Universe as far as homelessness is concerned. Whatever the subject related to the homeless, I always check to see what is happening in Denver and how that particular situation is being handled.

But what I will miss most of all, however, is seeing Chipper. Even if I do get back to Denver sometime in the next six months. the weather will not be conducive to sharing a bench with my squirrelly friend.

As ridiculous as it might be, I wondered this morning if he was sensing it all as he stared me down. It may sound corny, but I'm sure I will think of him from time to time over the winter. Yeah, Chipper, I will miss you, buddy!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Remembering Marathon

There is a danger in publicly trying to thank a lot of people for something--be it for wedding gifts received, a surprise party given, help rendered, or whatever.

 Ask Julia Roberts, who lives with perhaps the most famous example of what can happen. Upon receiving an Academy Award for Best Actress for her title role in "Erin Brockovich", she thanked a lot of people, but forgot to thank Erin Brockovich, the lady whose life inspired the movie.

 Yesterday, someone was asking me questions about how I went about writing my book. During the conversation I mentioned that it was written almost entirely at the Florida Keys Community College Library, where I worked almost every hour that it was open.

I started to add that on those occasions when the school--and library--were closed, that I traveled to Marathon to work in the public library there. I didn't finish that thought, because something stopped me in my tracks. It suddenly occurred to me that I have never public acknowledged the use of facilities, and the help given there.

 I would like to belatedly say how much I enjoyed and appreciated the kindness shown by Gloria and Beverley and Mark.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When Rainy Days Are The Best Days

For folks in Indianapolis, the middle part of Labor Day weekend was absolutely miserable, with leaden skies and steady rain throughout the morning and afternoon. Sunday was not a good day to be outdoors, and certainly not a good day for checking out the homeless situation in Indiana. But, although it was not a desirable day to do much of anything else, it was actually the best of days for accomplishing what I wanted to do. If you want to know what people without housing are doing on a Sunday afternoon, you don't seek them out on a sunny day, for you already know what they are doing--enjoying the weather. A bad weather day is an entirely different story. Then people who are homeless need something to do and somewhere to be that offers protection from the elements. Every city or town seems to be a little bit different in what is available to the homeless. In Key West, there isn't much. There, as in many other cities, homeless persons who are fortunate enough to have refuge in a shelter at night, must be out of the shelter during daytime hours. For something to do that doesn't cost anything, wandering the streets is about it. In Las Vegas, where the downtown library opens at 10:00 AM on Sunday, the homeless are able to go there, and are even treated to a morning movie in the lobby. As I ventured on to the streets and into the rain in Indianapolis, I saw little evidence that the city has a homeless problem. I splashed my way down Illinois Street and turned off here and there to check side streets. Finally I asked a police officer if there were a lot of homeless persons in Indianapolis, and if so, where they were. He assured me there were "quite a few". He repeated his answer twice for emphasis. He didn't know, however, where they were on this rainy day. He knew though that they were "hiding" somewhere. Then, as I walked with him a half block or more, he suddenly stopped and pointed down the street. "There's one of them!" he exclaimed, as though he had just spotted one of the Dalton gang, or a Jesse James sidekick. I said goodbye to the police officer and approached the man he had spotted, who was barely under cover as he sat on the sidewalk in the entrance way of a Steak and Shake. His name is Jack and he didn't seem at all unhappy with his circumstances. Jack was friendly and talkative and provided an answer to the whereabouts of the homeless population. He said that homeless persons were allowed in the shelters during daytime hours on Sundays, and he added that if I wanted to see a lot of them, I would be welcome visiting the shelter over on Delaware Street. By this time, however, I needed to hustle back to the Greyhound terminal to catch my bus. On the way, I thought about Sunday afternoons, and the rain and the homeless. I thought about some people I know who are new to helping the homeless, and whose idea of helping is to volunteer to help dish out meals at soup kitchens. I think that what they really need to do is go out and get their feet wet--in more ways than one. That's how you learn about the homeless, and how you can best help them.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Willie Nelson and Senator Kennedy

What could these two American icons possibly have in common? The answer is that both have told us that it is never too late to do something worthwhile, that it is never too late to put wasted years in the rear view mirror, and move on to doing things worthwhile. Last weekend, I was one of the many who watched television coverage of events leading up to Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral. Time after time, someone mentioned that Ted Kennedy had overcome a lot of mistakes and failings early in life to become a powerful advocate for those less fortunate, and that, at the time of his death, his lifetime body of work was an exceptionally good one. Those comments reminded me of a line from a Willie Nelson song--words that I thought of often when I began to write "Homeless Isn't Hopeless"....."I could cry for all the time I've wasted, but that's a waste of time and tears". I am no icon, but I thank the Good Lord that later in life--after wasting a lot of years and a lot of opportunities, I have been blessed with the opportunity to be a messenger for something worthwhile.