When writing about people in Chattanooga, I interview them and I write in third person starting off with their background and how their passions led them to what they are involved in today. This person of interest who I chose to write about doesn’t have a name and I cannot write his story in third person – because he brought me into his story.
I won’t tell you a background of a little tyke who learned to read at the library. No, this is about a young man who is in trouble and he could very easily be your son or mine. It was laid upon my heart to write about him because this boy was different than most of the homeless we would normally see downtown.
As I waited outside of the library for someone I was meeting, I was able to observe the people entering and leaving the library. Occasionally, I would see a mother with her children, but mostly I saw older men who were walking and took a rest on the benches. Some of them could have been homeless. I really didn’t pay much attention as I waited …until a young boy leaving the library caught my eye.
He had mid-length wavy, dirty-blonde, disheveled hair and wore a jacket on a beautiful warm autumn day. Perhaps he was still chilled from sleeping outside all night or perhaps he was afraid someone would steal it from him. He also had a pack on his back that he laid down about 20 feet away from me against the wall. He plopped down, laid back on his pack and raised his hands to his eyes. Was he crying? Was he upset? I tried to look away, but I kept an eye on him in case he needed help or … was planning to grab my purse.
It is hard to follow our heart to help others because of so much trickery and deceit of those with a bad heart. The homeless you want to care about could just as easily be a criminal dressed as a homeless person so they can harm or rob you. A woman has to be extra careful, but at the same time a woman’s heartstrings can also be pulled. Now, I am not naïve to believe that every person on the street with a sign begging for money really needs help and I pass many of them up. But this boy did not have a sign. He did not ask for money.
The boy seemed to be in his early twenties, and he was a little out of his head. Maybe he had a mental illness or maybe he was strung out on drugs – either way… he was somebody’s child. What happened to this boy? Who stopped caring? How did he get this way? I am always interested in the story behind what I see.
I never make eye contact with strangers unless it is in passing and to share a smile, but while I wait alone outside, I am careful to be ready for anything. I played in my head what I would do if I were approached by any of the men hanging around outside. Just then the boy spoke to me. He got up after lying in the warm sun and asked me from where he stood, “Do you know where there is a swimming pool?” I was a bit surprised by his question and decided he was either strung out or his mind was just gone. I shook my head ‘no’ and grabbed my phone to check on the person I was meeting.
With no answer back, I waited longer and my concern grew for the boy who had spoken to me. I was ready for him to hit me up for money or cross my boundaries in which I already had a plan in place. The boy spoke one more time and said, “I like your hair … it’s pretty.” The tone of his voice was not in a threatening way. He sounded like a 10-year-old who was talking to his mother and wanted to give her a compliment. Maybe he wondered what my story was. Why was I sitting there alone and did I have any sons?
I thanked him and, a little uneasy, I went into the library in case I had missed my friend and they were waiting for me inside. After I passed by him I heard him say quietly, “I am hungry.” He did not direct it to me, and he said it with quiet pain in his voice. Yes, he could have been shining me on and hoping for money, but I didn’t get that feeling. I had already observed another man who walked right up to a lady entering the library and he asked her for some change – that is the behavior of a beggar who may or may not be hungry.
This boy’s behavior was that of someone who was “lost”. He didn’t seem to have any purpose and he wasn’t bothering anyone. This could be one of my sons. In an economy such as ours, I understand how a person could easily become homeless. I understand with today’s family dynamics how people can become lost and unattached. My heart hurt for the boy, but I am not one to get involved unless I am in a group. I take safety precautions because you never know what you will be up against.
As I passed the boy and ignored him, I went inside but I could not ignore the boy – he was still in my mind and on my heart. That boy is your son… he is my son. For some reason he met hard times. Maybe he was once a teenager who left home after an argument and could no longer find a place to stay. Maybe he experimented with drugs which took control of his life. Maybe his family had to practice tough love and had kicked him out. Maybe he was abused and he left for the streets as a better alternative.
Maybe he served in the military and came back with PTSD and was not helped. And maybe he had attended a private school and was unable to keep his grades up and didn’t want to disappoint his parents who had placed pressure on him - and now …he is homeless.
Whatever the reason… the boy said, “I am hungry.”
I knew what I was going to do once I was inside. The boy had never approached me or asked for my help. I looked around for the person that I was meeting and, after 17 minutes, I decided to leave and reschedule the meeting. But for those 17 minutes, God spoke to my heart. I loved that boy as if he were my son. Oh my heart wanted to take him home, clean him up, cook him a meal and teach him how to start over to have a second chance. Everyone deserves a second chance.
But unfortunately, this isn’t how life works. I am not such a Pollyanna that I believe it is as simple as that. It could very easily be an unsafe situation. It could be a deceitful situation. I could ignore the whole thing, decide it isn’t my problem and go back to my safe home.
But what if that were my son who said he was hungry. I would only hope that someone would be kind to him no matter if he brought on his circumstances or not. I never carry cash but this time I had and I reached in to my purse and pulled out money that might help the boy have lunch, dinner and possibly …find a swimming pool for the day. But what about tomorrow? Would he be lost tomorrow with no purpose tomorrow …and with no food?
If he was intoxicated or high – would he be high tomorrow? Would anyone reach him and help him leave that life? I walked out of the library and handed him the money and he said surprised, “Thank you,” as I walked on by and not looking him in the face. I couldn’t. I could not even utter “God bless you” or “Have a nice day” or even a motherly “Don’t buy drugs – get food.” I couldn’t let the situation that I had no control over attach itself to me more than what I allowed it to.
Oh, I knew very well that he could leave with that money to buy drugs, or he may have thought I was a fool and bought into his con. Maybe he wasn’t even homeless. But something inside did not feel like that was the case. This boy’s behavior was not like other panhandlers. Even if he could be a con artist, he was in trouble at such a young age and there was no one helping him.
Whose son was he? What was his story? I almost wanted to turn around and ask him but I kept walking back to my car as more men sat outside on the library benches. I had to make the decision that my only part in it today was to give, to pray and possibly to tell his story – a story without answers.
A story that causes us to reach deep inside and ask the same questions that I did while having 17 minutes to do nothing else but listen to my heart - a story that angers us knowing that this can even happen to our young people today - that a young man who was lost in his mind and in the world is just being thrown away.
Who will love the boy at the library? Who will care? How will the boy find his way? But more importantly, how did he get there and what if it were our son? What do we do now? Reaching in our pocket seems so trivial. Walking passed a human being who was once somebody’s son – seems heartless. I personally do not want to see another boy lost. I know I cannot save the world and our homeless situation is bigger than most of our efforts, but anytime I interview someone for a story – I never leave them without finding out ‘why’.
My stories about people in Chattanooga are usually uplifting or to encourage others who may identify with the person. Today, this Chattanoogan has no name, he has no goals or anything to share. I want to make us think about “prevention”. We may not be able to help everyone who is on the street – some of them are unwilling to help themselves or to receive our help. While others may be grateful, yet there are so many we alone could barely make a dent to help them all.
But how do we act so that this boy isn’t our own son? How do we prevent this from happening to the teenager at home now?
Today, schools are implementing systems in order to keep children safe from others who would bring harm to them. This should never have become a problem in our schools, but it is a reality today. I pray often for my grandchildren who attend a public school. There are so many pressures and fears for our children today.
Homes are being split down the middle by divorce and we have parents who are work-a-holics or who are self-absorbed in their own struggles while ignoring their teenager who is crying out.
If we trace all of the steps back to the very first thing that led that boy at the library to where he is in his life today – what would we find? Was he just like our son? Could his parents have been more aware of his pain? Of his confusion? Could somebody have cared a little more than they did? Could a mentor step in where a parent wasn’t there?
No matter what action there is to take – prayer, giving a gift (or your time) to the homeless or to a children’s home; or simply …to think of how you will be aware of your own child’s needs who is at home right now.
We can all love the boy at the library in some way and it just may start at home.