Just when I thought I wasn’t going to have anything to write about this week God sent us a homeless woman. For a long time now I’ve suspected that periodically Jesus dresses up like a homeless person and goes around to check up on how His church is taking care of business. So I usually pay attention when I encounter someone without a place to sleep.
Things were going fairly normal considering what an abnormal life this is. We’re only working on about nine houses this week and the volunteers have their work figured out. I’ve got a team of college kids building a shed for Miss Susie. Shirley Thompson has found an organization that will build her a new house to replace the one that's falling apart. The shed is so she can store some of her things and she'll have more room in the meantime. I made my afternoon rounds of checking on our jobsites. I was on my way back to camp congratulating myself on such a calm and productive day when John, the Village Manager, called me to ask if I knew any places for a homeless lady to go to.
She had come into camp because we have a huge sign on the street that announces the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and it sort of makes us look welcoming. The sign even says “Hope Through Hospitality.” And the blue shirt I wear to work every day has that embroidered on it in plain letters. We are supposed be here offering Hope Through Hospitality.
As is usual with people in her shoes, the story was complicated. Somehow this lady had gotten herself to Pearlington without a car and ended up being put out onto the street by the man she was staying with.
For all the folks who cautioned me that she was a con artist I have to say that if she was one, she wasn’t very accomplished at it. For one thing, she called her husband for help. I’ve never heard of that one before. And she had more luggage than any homeless person I ever saw, including one of those sleep machines for snoring. She had two duffle bags and three full garbage bags, plus the sleep machine and her purse.
John and I went to the phones looking for homeless shelters. After about 27 phone calls, I walked her over to the fire department next door looking for advice. Nada. Back to the phones. I had so many people refer me to one resource in Gulfport that I ended up with the number memorized. But the bottom line was that there just aren’t any resources around here for homeless people. DUH. This whole four state region, the whole Gulf Coast from Texas to Alabama was homeless in the most literal sense of the word for the last two and a half years. If you’re going to end up homeless, my advice is to avoid Katrina Country. Everybody is homeless here.
Slips of paper littered our office where John and I wrote phone numbers down and scratched them off. It’s a horribly frightening thing to stare at a phonebook knowing the person sitting in front of you has no place to go and is depending on you and there just aren’t any more phone numbers to call. I got my friend Dallas on the phone and she put me on one speaker phone while she dialed phone numbers on another phone. They would refer her to a number and I could hear her dial it. Dallas went through seven phone numbers, including the one in Gulfport I had already memorized. There may have been plenty of phone calls but no solid help.
We finally called one of the Katrina recovery centers who referred us to the one lady with the fewest rules and the biggest heart in Hancock County. I have to confess that I won’t tell you her name for the same reason people don’t like to spread news of their favorite quiet restaurant. I don’t want to overburden her hospitality. But I can say that I’ve met the lady once before and, on that occasion, she was fast-talking, fast-moving, brusque and businesslike. But Tuesday night she was soft and gentle and plain spoken. She would let Trudy stay there for the night then take her to the nearest Salvation Army Center who would be able to get her a bus ticket home. I could tell she had done this before. Then she produced a roll-away bed because her own volunteer camp was as full as ours was. Trudy spent the night in the office there.
Then our angelic resource told us the Sheriff and Police Departments sometimes bring her people like Trudy because they have no other place to take them. Some police will even dump a homeless person on the highway at the county line. If you are pregnant and homeless, the state of Mississippi will take your baby when it’s born. Yes, I’ll say that again so it will sink in. If you have just had a baby and don’t have a home to take the baby to, the hospital will call the state to come take your baby away from you. Or newest best friend continued by telling us that the non-profits working here need to organize themselves to do something. She said there are an awful lot of people who go to church every Sunday and then “act mean on Monday.”
Just as I was starting to think I had this job figured out, God sent me Trudy to remind me that it’s not all about keeping your paperwork tidy and turned in on time. Being the Worksite Manager isn’t even just making sure the right paint goes on the correct wall or that the house passes the electrical inspection. It unavoidably involves finding resources nobody else can find. Because, after all, there’s this big sign on the street that makes you sound welcoming and loving and Christian.
And what about the job given to everyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus Christ? We may not ever figure it out. We may never get good at it. The best we will ever be able to do is muddle through. I muddled as best as I could today. I hope it was enough.