I know the faces of most of the homeless in the town where I do my field work; many have sat across the desk from me at one time or another and others I just recognize from seeing them around town.
But I was caught by surprise with his flower-laden hands; the roses stolen, I’m nearly certain, from a streetside bush. “I love your hair!” he shouted at me as he crossed the street while I got in my car. Polite to a fault, I smiled and thanked him and closed the car door in his face.
Then I realized he meant to give me some of those flowers. Or so I thought.
Inwardly cursing my good manners, I rolled down the window and smiled some more and listened to his story. Because there’s always at least one good long one. Something in my face brings out the storyteller in people.
Really, I think I must have *I’m a social worker. Tell me every last one of your troubles, please!” stamped across my forehead in ink that everyone but me can see.
Turns out he’s a Vet that lives in a tent in the woods beyond Deal Lake in Asbury. Has a small army of children that eat up the majority of his VA pension with child support. His mind is still mostly somewhere in Vietnam, as he referred over and over to what his Captain says, as if that weren’t forty-some years ago.
I’d guess it was about 10 minutes into our conversation, when he wanted money for the freely offered roses, that he regretted ever throwing a compliment my way.
Cast aside was the smiling white lady who might have money in exchange for a sad story. She was replaced by the social worker with suggestions for where he might find a place to stay for a while, a list of phone numbers and more unsolicited advice than he cared to listen to.
I left him finally with my business card, some change from the bucket I keep in the car for tolls and a bit of inside information that might just make some real difference in his life.
The application list for rental assistance opened in Asbury today. Only today. People wait for years on those lists, wait for decades for the list even to be open. Most people find out after the fact, when it’s too late. Many of the people who need rental assistance never read a newspaper where the announcement and application are published.
I told him to take the money I’d *paid* him for the flowers and buy himself today’s paper so he could submit the application right away and have it postmarked in time.
He thanked me and ambled away across the street, not realizing I was watching him from the intersection while I waited for the light to change. He crossed Main St. and went straight to the liquor store with my money in his pocket.
I’m hoping he bought today’s paper and not a bottle.
Answers come, I suspect, in the form of angels sent to us unaware. So often we’re upheld by giants of Kindness and Hope, by the kind of people who you pass on the street and feel sorry for because they are poor or uneducated or unable to speak much English. Together with the burden of all the sad stories I hear, I like to imagine the benefit of understanding and knowing deeply that true treasures wait here, that a certain kind of strength and confidence resides in the exact places and in the very people you’d least expect.
His rose, suspended in a small ceramic vase on the fridge, will remind me of that for the next couple days.