A Pittsburgh Steelers cap, a Steelers sweatshirt, even a Steelers coat.  I knew I had to give him a hard time.

“Did you not get the memo? We are in green and gold country?” I joked.

“Well you know I have to represent.”  He jokes back.

“Please tell me,” I shot back “That you have better taste in baseball teams.”
And so our conversation began.

He was one of the most honest and forthcoming people I had come across.

He had just moved here a month ago from Mississippi with his (much younger) wife and four children in tow. They came on the promise of a job, but when he arrived that job was no longer available. They had used all their money to get here. They could not go back, there were no jobs in Mississippi. I asked where they had been staying, and he looked me square in the eye.  “Four kids, in our car mam. I have nothing left to feed them. The gas is completely gone.  We can’t stay dry. I am a man who can’t provide for his family.” He was beaten.

We talked about what he was doing for a job search. We joked a little more about sports.  He made fun of me for Chicago’s football team. Finally, he said, “We just need some time to get dry and get some sleep.”

I was able to put him up in a motel room, but only for four days. That was our limit, and we were just about out of the ability to do even that.  Usually, these rooms are set aside for emergencies that are temporary in nature. These rooms are not to ever be used as a band-aid for a problem that has no solution. It sounds harsh, but it is the reality of the limits of the system.But I knew I had to give him this time to get warm and get some sleep so he would at least have a fighting chance. He was so thankful for this reprieve. I told him to make an appointment in the meantime with the job search agency and then to come back and check in with me.

Yesterday he came back in.  He had his pastor with him. He told me he wore his Steelers cap just for me. His sense of humor was still intact.  

We went down to the office.  

“How was the motel?” I asked

“It was so great. So great to have a bed. So great to be dry. So great to have some running water. The owner was a very nice man, very professional. I wanted you to know that we kept the room very clean. But now we are back on the streets. I don’t know what to do. I am going to the job place today. I don’t know what to tell the kids.”  

I decided right then, that I needed to keep it real with this man. He had been so honest and so earnest, and I  knew he could handle the reality of his situation.

“I am sorry Ricky, but we just have nothing else right now. I have gotten you on the waiting list for the only family shelter. And that is a waiting game.It is a transient population, and someone can move today or move in a week. We just don’t know. The resources in this town are just so limited for shelter. If you were in a bigger city, your family would have more of a chance at a shelter. I get what I am telling you. I get it does not sound full of hope. But I believe in a God of hope, and we are just going to ask Him to show up and show off for your family. You do all you can do, I will do all I can do and we will trust God to do the rest.

I have had nothing, Ricky. I know how that feels. But I also know that the God we serve is bigger than of this.  So trust him, and if you can continue to trust me.” I stopped.

“This woman believes in you” his pastor boomed.

“I do. But more than that I believe that God can.” I replied.

We came up with a loose plan of seeking shelters in Rockford, the closest “big city”.  He was going to go to the job center and see if there were any possibilities at all.

I felt as though I had given him nothing at all.

As he was leaving, he stopped and looked at me.“Other than having horrible taste in any major league teams, you are a good woman. You were straight with me. You didn’t judge me.  And you treated me with dignity. Living in a car, you have no dignity left. But you made me feel like I do. Thank you.”

After he left my heart was so heavy of all the things I could not do. Such a basic need to shelter and feed your family. To know that your kids are sleeping soundly, and peacefully without a care in their minds. I could not even offer him a safe place to land.

What I could do for him is to not just see his current situation, but the man that he was before it all fell apart. The man he was created to be; a human, worthy of all the dignity we can offer.  It is not a big thing, but to him, it was the thing. In him, I was reminded that we are all so “fearfully and wonderfully made” and all so inherently in need of someone recognizing the dignity in us. And we need this dignity right where we are, in whatever place we find ourselves. His situation seems hopeless, but he is not without hope. 

Karen Cassidy (stmichaelcas@gmail.com)

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.