“Keep an eye out for watermelon boxes. They’re the thickest ones out there,” Fridge instructed as we headed for that night’s cardboard run.
It was only my second night sleeping on the streets, but I already knew exactly what Fridge—one of our guides for the weekend who has spent many years homeless—was talking about.
It was raining that late winter’s night in Melbourne, Australia and the temperature was expected to drop close to freezing. A thick piece of cardboard from a watermelon box would provide that extra few centimeters of distance from the cold, wet concrete sidewalk that I would try to sleep on as city trains, traffic, street lights, and noisy pedestrians did their best to keep me awake.
When I got the email a few weeks earlier inviting my wife and I to join a group becoming rough sleepers* for a weekend, I instantly felt nervous. I knew my wife would jump at the opportunity, since helping the disadvantaged and marginalized in society has a special place in her heart. But to be honest, I was a little scared.
We had both recently started leading a team from an organization called Many Rooms that provide meals and other services to the homeless and disadvantaged of Melbourne. Even though I was hesitant to give up the comforts of my home to sleep rough for two nights, I knew that the experience would give me a glimpse into what the homeless of my city and around the world face every day.
And so my wife and I joined a group of eight people associated with Many Rooms who would meet up with three men from Melbourne Rough Sleepers (MRS): Fridge, PJ, and John. These men have lived or still live as rough sleepers themselves, and they would act as our guides throughout the weekend.
Little did I know that the experience would be one that not only changed my perspective about the homeless community, but also made me realize things about myself that I had never known. Here are three lessons I learned that weekend:
1. Be Wary of Stereotypes
Whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to generalize any group of society that we are not familiar with. When I started the weekend on the street, I realized that I had done the same with rough sleepers. The stereotype of those who are homeless being drunks, drug addicts, mentally ill, or just plain lazy, was not the reality of many that we met.
Instead, we heard stories of rough sleepers fleeing domestic violence, and learned that the best place for them to hide was sleeping on the street. Another common story was of middle-aged men caught up in messy divorces who would lose their houses and their savings on legal fees trying to get their kids back. One person we met had grown up in foster homes his entire childhood and ran away at 16 to literally join the circus. Eventually, he found his way to the street and has been a part of the community ever since. Another memorable person we talked to said he had “concrete in his blood” due to the decades living on the street. He shared about the anger and violence issues he has dealt with stemming from his childhood when he was sexually abused.
I learned that everyone has a unique story and is dealing with their own issues. It is so important that we do not let our pre-conceived notions about a group in society prevent us from seeing others as God sees them—as people created in His image and loved by Him. The experience also made me reflect on what other hidden or subconscious stereotypes I have and how that may be preventing me from serving and loving others in society as Jesus would want me to.
As I reflected on the weekend, I kept going back to Genesis 1:27—the assurance that God created all of us in His image. May we look at all of our fellow human beings in the same light, regardless of the stereotypes we may have.
2. The Gift of Time and Respect
One of the toughest moments of the weekend started with a challenge given by our guides: to ask people for a dollar coin or a cigarette. Two successes were required for you to “pass” the challenge.
Being asked for spare change from people on the street is not an uncommon experience for many who live in a city. But being on “the other side” was an eye-opening experience. I suddenly became aware of how I appeared (and probably how I smelled) after a couple days on the street. I would search the faces of pedestrians passing by, wondering who would be the kind soul that would say yes to a stranger asking for money.
As I did so, I realized it wasn’t the rejections to my pleas that hurt the most. It was the shake of a head without even a word to acknowledge my existence. It was the quickening of their steps to walk away from me after they had said no. It was the way they paid more attention to their phone than they did to me.
On the flip side, when people said yes, it wasn’t the coin or cigarette that meant the most. It was the acknowledgement of me as a person and the time they took to help out a fellow human being.
While talking with other rough sleepers and trying to discern how I could serve them better in my role with Many Rooms, the common theme that came up was their desire to be respected and treated as any other person.
When I asked what were some ways people could show respect for them, the answer was time. Time going out of your way to share a meal with them. Time acknowledging them as human beings who are in a tough spot right now. Time spent sitting down and chatting about stuff, even if it’s about your favorite sports teams or debating the relevance of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars.
Time and respect. Just like we all want.
This practice can also be applied to other aspects of our lives. Taking the time to chat with that elderly person even though we’re in a rush. Taking the time to patiently counsel a friend in need, even though we’d rather be bundled up on the couch watching Netflix. Taking the time to really learn about the needs and concerns of family members so we can serve and help them in a way that points them to the light of Jesus inside of us.
3. The Power of Light Over Darkness
When searching for a place to sleep each night, there were a few criteria that we were looking out for. One of the key ones was whether the area was well lit. We learned that there was less chances of danger in the light. And because of that, you could sleep with a bit more ease in the light.
At one point during the weekend, PJ, one of our guides, shared with me his favorite verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
“I’ve been through a lot of low points in my life, a lot of dark times,” PJ shared. “This verse helped me a lot during those times. To head towards the light even in the darkness.”
During that weekend, I heard many stories of those who have lived through dark times. And just like every human on earth, there is a light that we are searching for, that we all need. My prayer is that just as we strive to fill the physical and practical needs of the homeless in our cities, that they would also come to know the light that shines in the darkness. And that no matter how dark their pasts have been or how low they feel right now, the darkness will not overcome the light we find in Jesus. Because even in the darkest of times when there seems to be no way out, Jesus has promised us that He will be there, that He came to “seek and to save the lost.”
*A more friendly term for those who are homeless and sleeping on the street.