What I Learned from the Homeless
By Makena Clawson | Makena is a member of the inaugural class of Gregorian Fellows. Now a missionary with Christ in the City in her native Denver, she graduated from Benedictine College in 2015 with degrees in Spanish and Journalism.
I felt the Holy Spirit push me forward, through the tables where women were eating tonight’s chili and canned green beans, past the regular women I talk to at the local homeless shelter. The Spirit’s nudge pushed me to a woman I’d never met before, standing in the corner glancing around.
I walked past, checking out the situation. Is she homeless or just a volunteer? I wondered, not wanting to make an embarrassing assumption. I knew I had to talk to her.
Lucy was young, in her mid-20s, and had been homeless for only a week. She and her boyfriend were traveling through Denver and got stranded. She was dressed nicer than I was and had more energy and joy, despite her situation. As we got to talking, I realized Lucy might not be as happy as she was putting on.
“You know, Lucy, you don’t have to pretend everything is fine. What you’re going through is really difficult,” I said. “It probably sucks.”
“Yeah, it kind of does,” she said as she let out a sigh of relief.
“Would you want to hang out this week?” I said. “Maybe get coffee or even go to a movie together, just get out of here?”
She smiled, amazed and relieved that there could be normal life outside of the shelter where she had been staying.
Lucy and I spent time together the next week, hanging out at a coffee shop. She got off the street a few weeks after we hung out, and she and her boyfriend now have jobs.
As a Christ in the City missionary, I’m spending a year in Denver getting to know the homeless. I go out to the city streets every day to meet the homeless and spend time with those the missionaries have already gotten to know, like my friend Lucy.
When I’m walking the streets, I often feel nudges of the Holy Spirit, like the one that led me to meeting her.
For example, I felt his nudge when I first encountered Daisy. She was sitting in the park drawing in a sketchpad. After walking by and feeling like I had to go back and say hello, I asked what she was drawing. This began a deeper conversation than I ever expected where she opened up about childhood wounds, abuse and despair. Daisy and I kept in touch, and I was able to connect her with help to heal these wounds.
When it comes to helping the poor, we’re tempted to shy away because we feel powerless in the face of problems bigger than we can tackle. Maybe you avoid eye contact with a man or woman asking for spare change at the stoplight because you don’t feel like you have anything to give or don’t want to give money.
But what the poor really need is you. They need your smile. They need a handshake. They need you to ask how their day is going and mean it. They need you to ask their name and remember it.
I’ve gotten to know a young woman, Megan, who is pregnant and homeless. I take her to her prenatal checkups and ultrasounds every month at the local Catholic women’s clinic. As she approaches her due date, she’s found a larger support system to help with government assistance and a place to stay. At first, I felt almost replaced.
But one day over lunch, Megan casually said to me, “You know, you’re my best friend.” I was a little surprised and didn’t know how to respond. It isn’t what I’m able to provide for her that matters, but our friendship.
Simple actions make a difference. Saying hello to a man or woman at a stoplight is important. More often than not, the man or woman you encounter will be surprised that you care and will be truly grateful.
Like my simple coffee date with my friend Lucy, small actions make a difference. Sitting and talking with someone, reminding them of their dignity is what the poor really need. I’ve learned this year that I am powerless. I can’t fix people’s lives. I can’t end poverty. But I can love others in small ways. I can make a difference in their day and their lives and give them hope.
Even as a Christ in the City missionary, it can be difficult for me to roll down my car window when I’m off duty. About four months ago, after struggling and hesitating one day, I rolled down the window to meet the man with a sign on the corner. I asked his name and introduced myself. Jesse and I shook hands and he seemed excited to meet me and know someone cared.
Ever since then, I greet Jesse by name. He’s always ready for me and says, “There she is!”
Next time you encounter the homeless, do not be afraid that you have nothing to give! What they need most is you.
This first appeared at Aleteia.
The Gregorian Institute is Benedictine College’s initiative to promote Catholic identity in public life by equipping leaders (the Gregorian speech digest), training leaders (the Gregorian Fellows), defending the faith (the Memorare Army for Religious Freedom), and celebrating Catholic identity (the Catholic Hall of Fame).