From Hot Dogs to Hope

The following is an editorial/article I wrote from my church newsletter.

Resurrections: Moving Beyond Hot Dogs, Providing Hope for Homeless Couple

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Larry Nichols, Director of Resurrections Ministries, and a team of seven more Resurrections faithful, for lunch. I was curious about a new venture they’re launching and Larry suggested meeting the rest of the group would prove informative.

chiliResurrections, dedicated to “Provide, Feed, and Serve” the homeless of South Carolina, is an outreach ministry and if you’re in downtown Columbia late on a Saturday morning or early afternoon, you’ll find them on the corner of Taylor & Huger feeding anywhere from 100 – 150 homeless people hot dogs, chili, chips, fruit, and desserts. Originally known as Founders of the Feast, they re-branded as Resurrections in 2012 when Larry Nichols stepped into the leadership role. St. Simon & St. Jude (SSSJ) helps serve the meal about every six weeks. It’s a feel-good ministry, costs one nothing to help, and does a little good in the world. At least, that’s what it looks like to the casual observer.

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Larry Nichols

But like Jonah, I think Larry couldn’t escape the voice of God, or at least a novel idea the team began discussing over the last year. Working with the homeless over time, they came to know them as human beings and realizing the myriad issues each faces in getting off the streets. Though there are many helpful religious, governmental, or other philanthropic organizations which exist to assist the homeless, many do not perfectly match the criteria of any or all and thus, shuffled from one agency to another, they eventually fall through the cracks and spend potentially years living on the streets. This is where the Resurrections team sees themselves stepping in, providing a safety net in the form of a team capable of reacting to the nuances of each individual case, unbound by a rigid set of rules.

The lunch was organized as a status check for a couple the team is helping, who I will here call Mary and Sam. One by one they provide the details of the efforts each has made with the couple over the last week or so: doctors and counseling appointments for Mary, disabled from a horrific accident in her youth and diagnosed with PTSD from years of abuse; unraveling useless documentation from a TV lawyer in order to get Mary disability funds; working to get Sam’s driver’s license up-to-date; coordinating repairs on their temporary housing; getting Sam to a doctor to follow up on nerve damage to one hand that leaves him in crippling pain (though does not prevent him working, which he does).

My head spinning from the list of issues facing this couple, I notice among the group a sort of wry humor, a deeply human understanding of their need to help rather than enable, and a buoyant positivism, even while gaining the understanding it’s not enough assisting Mary and Sam with paperwork and transportation, they must also reeducate them from thinking like homeless people. “One issue with helping the homeless is that we don’t ever get the full story at first,” Larry explains. “It’s not that they’re necessarily lying – sometimes they just don’t know, or their thinking is confused. They don’t think things through. Their thinking becomes survival thinking: where is my next meal? Where will I sleep tonight?”
(For information on mental health issues among the homeless, go to http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Mental_Illness.pdf)

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Some, not all of the Team

I ask how they vet someone they think they can help, and Larry says they get background checks – which turned up some minor legal issues for Sam in another state – and there must be no active drug or alcohol abuse. Along the table, humor surfaces again as they explain there is a sort of sixth sense for knowing whether or not they are being conned. While remarkably non-judgmental, all admit  it can be sometimes frustrating working with the homeless, no matter how worthy, or how strong one’s desire to help.

Asking the obvious question, given they had been discussing this forward leap for over a year, I ask the group why this couple? Why now?

There follows a few seconds of thoughtful silence until Katie, who had attended the counseling appointments with Mary, offers, “For me, it was about their desire to be off the streets, especially her,” Heads nod vigorously along the table. “She seemed so broken, but I knew I could help her.”

“If you meet them, you’ll understand,” is Jennifer’s explanation, and the rest sketch a picture of a sweet-natured, guileless woman and a man who lovingly accepts her exactly as she is.

Larry mentions that a great deal of the work they do with this couple or any homeless person is challenging and changing their way of thinking, which Katie illustrates by reminding the group to each work with Mary on shedding her habit of persistently apologizing. Years of abuse have left her apologizing for everything, and part of her healing process will be relearning, or perhaps acquiring for the first time, confidence in herself.

Theirs is a tough love, these advocates, just like in any family. Larry points out, “Carole, you’ll have noticed that everyone at this table is strong enough to say “No” when they need to. We could do all of these things for them, but it would last only about half a second.”
Jennifer concurs, adding, “Having this group helps all of us. We get frustrated. We have all put in a lot of work into this couple, but we can come together here and express our frustration.”

These are not dewy-eyed do-gooders rather, all are pragmatic professionals, some but not all retired or semi-retired. Their professions and skills are widely disparate: a paralegal; a PhD in Education; a Veteran/Teacher; a former prison Warden; a medical practice consultant. What they share is a love for this couple, and a vision for the future.

Another name comes up, the potential next candidate for the group to bring in off the streets. He had sent Jennifer a text at 3:00 a.m. to let her know he’s back in Columbia, and he wonders if she can find someone to help him learn to read. She elaborates for me, “Probably because of my background” (Education) “I see so many homeless who I feel certain have un-diagnosed learning disabilities.”

“And because of that, they dropped out, didn’t graduate,” agrees Missie, the Paralegal.

They discuss documentation, since this effort has been learn-as-you-go, and they have learned more than they ever expected. Larry reiterates something he mentioned to me over the phone, the need to create a template and send it out to others, so more homeless can be brought in off the streets.

The final bit of business is finding a name for their group. Suggestions are thrown out, none of which stick. We pay our bills and those who work scatter back to their offices. I stay behind with Larry and Arthur, pondering how many other lives might be positively affected through this group’s dedication to walking with the homeless through the oft-times labyrinthine issues which put them on the street.
“That’s exactly the point of this,” Larry says. “We’re going to create a template to send out to other organizations to use so they don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” and I wonder to myself if he realizes how far out of the belly of the whale he is.

Driving home, I consider what I saw the first time I served at Hot Dogs for the Homeless: a bunch of homeless people, a bunch of church people serving them food and offering clean clothes. It was lovely; it definitely is being Jesus in the World. What I didn’t know is how much went on behind the scenes, how many obstacles stand between the homeless and security, or how eight people with a single focus, the skills each already possess, and a whole lot of love can change a life because they choose to do so.

Katie probably said it best, “She seemed so broken, but I knew I could help.”

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