Winter arrived shortly after the incident at the church and suddenly life on the streets became a higher-stakes game, as did our ability to provide services to folks who had no place to live.
When Larry turned up at our overnight shelter about a month later, the weather was taking a toll on him and he didn’t look good.
He had been sleeping outside and was back to drinking. He didn’t have much body fat to insulate him from the cold and it was clear from looking at him that the last month hadn’t been a good time for him.
But when he saw me, his face opened up into a smile and he gave me a big hug. I was so happy to see him and know that he was okay. We talked a bit, but he was exhausted and I was busy trying to meet the needs of all 50 guests who were staying at the shelter that night. Within minutes of finishing the meal that we served, Larry was asleep on his mat. I draped a blanket over him before I left.
Larry continued coming to the shelter to sleep many nights, but the winter was still rough on him. He was unemployed; after coming to the area to work in the oil fields, the industry crashed and the job he was doing suddenly disappeared.
He tried to work some other jobs, but at 62 and with declining health, he was getting too old for day labor, which is mostly very physical and is the main job available to folks living on the streets.
He resorted to flying a sign at one of the major intersections in town, and I would see him standing there most days, for hours at a time, in all sorts of weather, and my heart would go out to him.
One day, I got to my office and checked the voicemail. There was a message from a case worker at the hospital, saying that Larry had been admitted there and he was requesting the bag that he had left at the shelter a few nights prior. I picked up the bag and headed to the hospital.
Larry had just come back from getting some tests done and was getting settled back in his bed when I poked my head in the door. He looked frail in the billowy hospital gown they had on him, and the color was gone from his cheeks.
I held up the backpack and entered the room.
His face lit up and he beamed.
“Oh, I knew you would come! My angel! Thank you!”
While I was glad to have brightened his day with the pack, I couldn’t help but wonder why he thought so highly of me. I had not been able to help him; actually I had failed him. I guess a little kindness and knowing someone cares about you goes a long way.
I gave him his bag and then sat with him for a little while. He told me about how he had been in the senior center and started feeling chest pains. One of the staff there called an ambulance and he was taken to the ER. Evidently he had been on the verge of a heart attack and they had placed two stents in his heart to open up the arteries. He was going to stay in the hospital for a few days to recover.
He was looking tired, so I gave him a hug and left him with our phone number so he could call for a ride to the shelter when he was being discharged.
Larry had ups and downs throughout the winter after that. A bout of pneumonia here, a fall and a bruised face there. Most nights, he stayed at the shelter, falling asleep within minutes of arriving.
One night, he had been drinking more than usual and got in trouble by yelling at the shelter staff and threatening to fight them. That incident earned him two nights of not being allowed at the shelter. Fair enough, but my stomach still turned when I heard about it.
Please let him make it through these next two nights. Please don’t let there be a note in the paper tomorrow morning about a homeless man freezing to death. Please, please, please.
(Thanks for reading Part 2. The final chapter, part 3, will be posted tomorrow.)