But it MIGHT change a cold night.
On nights like tonight, when the weather is ugly to everyone (even babies and puppies), I think about homeless people. Can’t help it. Even in my deliberate attempt to self-medicate through a selfish act of indulgence (a hot bath) and self-serving wastefulness (extra bath salts), I fail to numb the sadness I feel when I picture some runaway sitting alone under a bridge in the cold.
While I’m busy attending to my routine of personal hygiene, taking my hot baths and toothbrush for granted and wondering if my daily rinse with hydrogen peroxide and water is going to blow my head up, there’s someone at that moment who’d give anything for a toothbrush. They might even risk having their head blown up if it meant a fresh, minty mouth. I probably would.
All this contemplation has reminded me of something that happened one winter almost a decade ago.
Every week, my 12-year-old daughter and I made a trip into Atlanta for an appointment with her doctor. On one trip, we saw a homeless guy standing on the off-ramp of I-85 with a sign that said NEED FOOD. My daughter wondered out loud,”How does he stay warm? Or brush his teeth? Or keep from stinking?”
“He doesn’t,” was all I could say. How do you explain to your kid that there are over 20,000 people in your city alone that have no place to call home? That they wash in gas station bathrooms, wear filthy clothes and eat from trashcans? What’s the word homeless mean to a kid like mine? What’s it mean to ME?
The next week, we saw another guy at that same exit with a similar sign. It was even colder and the sky threatened to rain. From that moment, it was as if all those invisible homeless folks suddenly became visible, popping out of every corner as we made our way past the usual landmarks. Kinda like when you buy a new car and then you start noticing that kind of car everywhere. Only awful and overwhelming and without the new car smell.
Once you see them – you see them. And they can’t be erased. Especially the shadows you take to bed with you at night. Theirs are the shadows that don’t get lost in the dark. Not even when you pull your heavy comforter over your head. They aren’t to be forgotten, either.
My daughter certainly didn’t forget. Two days later she bopped into my bedroom with three old backpacks over her shoulder and announced, “Operation Backpack.”
“Operation Backpack!” she repeated.
Then she told me her plan to collect old backpacks and fill each one with a bar of soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a bottle of water, socks, gloves … stuff like that. “Then,” she said, “we’ll keep the backpacks in the car for our weekly trips into town. Next time we see someone at the exit or when we stop at a stop sign, we’ll hand them a backpack out the window!”
I was speechless. Honored. Awake. Aware.
We spent the remainder of that winter implementing Operation Backpack and you know what? It didn’t make a damned difference to the thousands of homeless people in Atlanta or to ANY people in Atlanta for that matter …
Except to seven.
Two of those seven were me and my daughter.