Not everyone goes into cold night shelter, no matter how cold the night. Some are trapped in the iron cage of mental illness and addiction. Some
don't have a photo I.D., and cannot, therefore, get the police clearance the city mandates (a police clearance is a warrants check). For many years, advocates have been asking the city commission to repeal this cruel law that results in human beings spending the night outdoors when the temperatures are in the teens and twenties, to no avail.
Small faith-based missions and some individual citizens go out on cold nights with blankets and hot food. The suffering we see still leaves us in a state of stunned disbelief. Last Thursday night we found Martha stretched out on the sidewalk next to what homeless people call "the pee tree." (In order to have clean ground to lay on and keep their belongings, one tree is designated as an outdoor latrine of sorts.) Martha, a woman with asthma and diabetes, who is in late middle age, was sobbing in pain, because she had twisted her ankle, or maybe even broken it, in a fall. Her friend Terry wanted to call the paramedics, but Martha was refusing. Terry asks, "How am I going to get her to my tent? She can't walk. She's going to freeze out here." Finally Terry decides to walk across the street and ask the paramedics to come. She yells at them, "Martha needs help." A male voice yells back, "Martha? Okay." A few minutes go by and we decide to go over to the fire station and put in another plea. We get there and see the paramedics walking our way.
In the meantime, Steve is helping a drunken man who is slumped in front of a dumpster on a urine-soaked blanket. He is angry, but Steve manages to coax him into eating a cup of hot soup. The man then passes out and Steve covers him with a silver emergency blanket. He will live through the night.
These are human beings. Most of them are victims of war, illness, disabilities, abuse and poverty. Even if that were not true, none of them deserve this. The state gives shelter, food and medical care to people convicted of heinous crimes, while ignoring and denying the suffering of these human beings.
There is a sense of deep, ancient living prayer in these acts of mercy. We are out in the dark and the cold, in a vast and incomprehensible universe. Every hand that stretches out with a cup of soup or a blanket, is a hand extended to God saying, "We are here. We are still here. Please be with us. Please have mercy on us."