New Year’s Eve Below Zero

Today is New Years Day 2018. It’s 10:30 am and I’m sitting in my pajamas drinking coffee. And no, I don’t plan to get out of these pajamas any time soon. They are my warm and cozy home for the rest of the day, after quite a wild night out.

But it wasn’t exactly the kind of New Year’s Eve you’d expect. There’s no hangover or trying to remember what transpired. In fact, the events of the previous evening are still fresh in my head, all flooding back this morning.

I’m writing like wildfire now, trying to get them all down before they evaporate like little champagne bubbles in my head. Or like some of the lives were evaporating on the streets of St Louis last night.

Let’s backtrack for a moment…

It’s 6:30 PM on New Years Eve, and I’m at a local coffee shop. Not Starbucks, but a bit more subversive. Lots of political posters and mottos around the room, all quite left wing. As a pastor, I stay out of politics. I vote, but I keep my mouth shut so I can minister to everybody. So all the placards, bumper stickers and buttons make an odd juxtaposition for me.

I’m not at this coffee shop for coffee, in fact the place is shut down for the night. Nevertheless people are wandering in. A call had gone out earlier on Facebook that the a group helping the homeless needed to mobilize., and to meet here.

This Facebook group goes to our city’s homeless camps and other locations when the temps dip dramatically. They offer to drive the homeless to makeshift shelters around town, opened up during the coldest days of winter.

Tonight the temps are supposed to reach below zero, so they know this is a life and death operation.

I look around the room and about 12 or so people have come. This is my first night, so I don’t know what to expect. I had watched a reporter on tv recently talking about the homeless problem in the city, how there aren’t adequate shelters, and how sometimes the homeless aren’t even all allowed in.

So last night as temps were getting dangerous, I suddenly got up out of my chair and drove into downtown St Louis to see if I could help.

When I got to the one remaining continuous shelter there, Biddle House, they seemed to have let everyone in though they only have a capacity of around a hundred. Our city’s homeless population is many multiples of that. Many of them had camped out on previous nights across the street, hoping to eventually get one of those spaces or just to be allowed to sleep on the floor. Thankfully that night, they’d opened the doors to everyone out of fear someone might freeze to death just across the street.

So I drove back home feeling a little better, but knowing that tonight would be worse. Since I realized I didn’t know what I was doing, I searched the internet for some group that might already be helping. That’s when I found the Facebook group.

The little group has gathered at the coffee shop in Tower Grove South area because some homeless people are mentally incapacitated and will often stay outside, avoiding the shelters. While they try to respect their wishes, the workers know that tonight that decision might just kill some of them.

So our job is to prod and beg as many of them into the temporary shelters set up around town as possible. My 20 year old daughter and her boyfriend are with me. We sit at a table and listen as one of the leaders explains

“Sometimes when we’re out, we may see a transaction (drugs) so be careful. If you see anything like a health issue or seizure, call 911 and then call me or George. We’re sending you out with experienced people…listen to your gut….”

I notice a male leader refers to them in passing as “people experiencing homelessness”, and not homeless people. This points to the sense of dignity the group wishes to recognize in the folks they serve. As the leader describes the challenges of the coming evening, I watch to see if my daughter’s expression changes. Nope – steely resolve. Good girl.

However I’m the one a little fearful as the leader splits me up from my daughter and her boyfriend. I’m being sent off with Becca (not her real name). Becca looks about 60 and says she’s former nun. Used to work with the homeless and knows all their hiding places around town.

After grabbing some blankets and gloves and saving goodbye to my daughter, we’re off to downtown St Louis in my SUV.

Becca sits shotgun giving directions, I drive. First, we go over the Eads Bridge to East St Louis, the only place I know of with a higher crime rate than we have. After we cross the bridge, she directs me down a deserted street. From a distance, I see a fire burning with tents set up a few feet away from it.

We stop the car, and Becca warns me to turn off the engine and take the keys. “You never know,” she says as she walks toward the encampment.

She knows at least one of the guys camping here, and calls out ahead of herself as she walks toward his massive dome-like orange tent.

Bill finally steps out to greet us. He’s maybe late 50s, early 60s and dressed like a mountain hiker with wool hat. I’ve already noticed both he and Becca have the wool hats down over their ears. My ears are already starting to sting after only one minute out of the car.

“Naw, I’m good,” Bill says. “It’s warm in the tent. Got blankets and a good sleeping bag, provisions. Appreciate you asking, though.”

Bill and Becca talk a few minutes about people with less elaborate shelters he thinks we should check on. We’re just 3 minutes outside now, and I feel myself starting to shake from the cold in spite of my heavy jacket, sweater, and gloves.

We wish Bill well and now are back in the car. I remember a knit cap my wife bought my son for Christmas that’s under a seat in the car. My son left without taking it with him. For once, I’m thankful for my son’s ungratefulness and reach under the seat to retrieve it.

We’re now back across the bridge into St Louis, and I’m driving through the downtown streets. Every now and then, Becca will call out, “Slower here” as she looks for some of her homeless folks favorite sleeping spots. We get out of the car several times to check blankets that have been left on the sidewalk.

“I guess someone already got to them. That’s a relief”

I follow Becca’s directions to a white building, where I notice a pile of blankets under the building’s fluorescent light. We approach Johnny, an older tall white man, laying on the concrete under that mountain of blankets.

Johnny’s white beard is stuck together with ice. I think he’s probably a bit drunk from his speak. He’s friendly, but cautious and not completely rational. We’re evidently about the third group to try to get him to go inside tonight.

“It’s going to be below zero tonight, Johnny. We’ll take you straight to a shelter. They’ve got hot food there. Nobody’s going to bother you.”IMG_9921

He answers, “Thanks so much, but I’ll be just fine here…”, then he starts pointing out his provisions and mumbling incoherently. As he moves his blanket to show us his food, a large kitchen knife protrudes and sparkles in the storefront light.

As we talk with Johnny, a black man passes us on the street walking toward the Biddle House shelter. Johnny watches him and says, “I gotta protect myself from the blacks”.

We try to pretend we didn’t hear him, and change the subject back, urging him again to come with us. Nothing. Finally Becca threatens to call the police on him to get him out of the cold.

He grins, thanks us, but says a final “no”.

Back in the car now, Becca ask if I turned on the seat warmers.

“Well, it’s either that or you’re having a mild stroke,” I quip. The feeling is finally starting to come back to my ears as I keep my son’s knit cap wrapped tightly around my head.

Back behind a local theater, we find two black gentlemen. They almost immediately agree to go with us. We load into my SUV and head down Grand Boulevard to a church where a temporary shelter is set up. One thanks us repeatedly along the trip. The other is younger, maybe just in his late 20s, and stares out the window silently.

We drive back to the downtown section and canvass the streets. We locate a lady we’ll call “Annette” that Becca knows under a mountain of blankets, in the doorway of a bank. As we start to talk with her, another car pulls up. Out come a popular tv reporter I recognize from the local Fox affiliate and a man with a warm smile I’ve heard of.

“I’m Larry, Larry Rice”.

Larry Rice is the pastor who ran the main homeless shelter in the town until last year. Seems it was across from a building full of nice high-rise apartments. So the city shut the multi-storied shelter down to make them happy. Only problem is they never replaced it with anything. Guess they thought the homeless would just catch a bus to another town.

Larry and the reporter Elliott Davis are working the streets tonight just like us. They came to see Annette earlier, but she wouldn’t budge. Now they’re back out of concern for her, and threatening to call the police to come get her for her own good.

“I’m going to the car to recharge my phone. Then I’m calling the police,” Davis warns.

Right now I’m having a bit of a God-moment, because it was this reporter’s recent live video reports that called my attention to the homeless problem in the first place. I wonder what are the odds I’d run into him out here tonight. It’s times like these I wonder if God is looking at me and raising His eyebrows just for emphasis.

I tell Rev Rice I’m also a pastor here in town and mention my church. We exchange cards as Becca looks on. We decide to leave Annette with the pastor and the reporter. Between them and the police, they’ll probably get her inside for the night.

“So, you’re a pastor?” Becca asks.

“Yep. Usually try not to mention it until I need to. Tends to shut down a conversation pretty quick…”

We pick up a fairly young couple at a convenience store further west up Kingshighway. The woman is obviously high on something, but present enough to know she’s freezing. They jump in the backseat of my car and we head toward a predominantly African-American church, where they’ve set up a shelter in their gymnasium.

As we arrive, an older black man is being escorted out by a volunteer guard. He’s drunk and started a fight, so they’re making him leave. Becca takes the couple from our van into the shelter, but is also paying attention to the old man.

“He’s so drunk, he’ll freeze to death out here.”

We go inside for a while and look around. Cot after cot fill the gym, with a old 24 inch tv set up in front of everyone. Some try to watch it, but most try to sleep with covers pulled over them. Volunteers hustle around through the room, caring for different ones.

As we head outside again, Becca looks for the old black man. She’d negotiated with the volunteers for the man to come back inside if he behaves. But when we get back to my car, the man is gone.

Becca begins a controlled panic.

“Let’s look for him. No way he’s walking well enough to get far.”

My wife and kids usually make fun of my driving. I’m very careful and slow, and try to obey traffic signs. I’m trying to go a lot faster tonight, but I’m sure I’m driving Becca crazy.

We whip around street corners looking for the old man. Nothing.

“Go up Martin Luther King this way. Maybe he went toward a liquor store.”

I slow a bit as she take the right side and I the left, peering down alleys and behind dumpsters. Still nothing.

Becca frantically but persistently works her phone. She tries to call the shelter to see if they’ve seen him, but she can’t get through to them.

I’m touched by the fact she cares so much for people who care so little for themselves. I wonder how much of her past life as a nun still matters to her. Did she have a bad experience that caused her to leave the faith, or is that faith still intact? And how much does her faith play into her passion to help these people? Or is she desperate to help them because she no longer trusts there’s anything for them past this life? I’m not judging her at all, just curious…

I have to be honest – I’m starting to enjoy things a bit at this point. It feels like an adventure. It’s a rush knowing you’re a part of something that means life and death to people.

But then it comes to me that this guy is going to die tonight. We’re not going to find him, he’s vanished. I remind myself this is not about me having an adventure or feeling significant – all this is real, and this man’s life matters.

If not to him, then at least it matters to Becca.

“What? He’s there? You’ve got to be F’ing kidding me?” The former nun drops the F bomb on the phone with the lady at Calvary Baptist and laughs out loud.

“Oh, I’m so sorry Helen. I didn’t mean to disrespect you. Just so happy you guys have him inside. Thanks for letting him come back!”

She hangs up and we chuckle and celebrate together. She drops a few more choice words, unable to contain her excitement that the old man had somehow wandered back into the shelter.

For a second, I wonder why she apologized to the lady at the church shelter for her language and not to me. Then I was glad she didn’t feel she needed to.

She asks if we can drive back and try to persuade the old white man again. She steps out of my car to engage him once more. I don’t believe she’s gonna convince him, so I hang back a bit.

About that time, Davis and Pastor Rice pull down an alley and up beside the parking lot we’re in. Evidently, they’re about to call the cops on this guy too.

As we drive away, Becca says, “I usually hate the cops until circumstances like this. They’re the only ones who can get guys like this inside.”

We whip down a few more streets. We find a homeless vet in a building with a back wall exposed to the elements. We negotiate him out, but his other buddies stay inside.

I can’t feel my knees anymore. Figure that’s a good sign it’s time to go indoors…”

We talk to a couple in a tent on top of a vacant lot. There are no trees or anything to stop the wind. As we plead with them, the wind picks up so much my face is numb. These won’t come with us either. We check a couple of abandoned cars down the street from them and decide to call it a night…

Now we’re winding our way back down Grand Boulevard toward the coffee shop. Becca has run out of places to look, and the owner of the shop is waiting to take our unused blankets back down to her basement.

Then, Becca sees a guy in hiking gear walking along the rode. He’s wearing a large backpack and has his head down.

“Pull over, right over here!”

We pop out of the car again. This guy says he’s hiking to a friend’s house, and he’s noticeably shivering. He’s fairly young, says he was just evicted and the friend in southtown offered to let him stay in his basement. We convince him to let us drive him the rest of the two or so miles. His speech is slurred for whatever reason. We drive past our coffee shop to take him to his friend’s.

After Becca and I talk a bit, she calls back to the guy in my back seat. No response.

We look in the back seat and he is slumped over. We both yell to him, and Becca nudges him. Thankfully, he darts back upright. He was so tired, he’d just fallen asleep in the seat.

We drop him off at his friends house. On the way back to the coffee shop, Becca asks me to check another parking lot in this area, because she knows of a refugee couple who stay behind a strip mall. At this point, I’m admiring her tenacity, but hoping I get to kiss my wife when the New Year comes.

We finally make it back to the coffee shop, where the owner is patiently waiting. We’re the last ones in for the night – I’m not surprised. I think this lady would have kept looking all night if she knew where any more people were.

As I leave, Becca gives me a big hug. “The pastor and the former nun walk into a coffee shop”…sounds like the beginning of a pretty dumb joke. But really it was the way God gave me the best New Year’s Eve I can remember.

I’m back in my warm apartment today. Other than a wind-burned face, I really have nothing else to show from last night’s experience. Nothing except maybe a sense of doing a little something that in the spiritual stream of things might really matter.

Maybe God is pleased with me. It wasn’t that much – we didn’t save the world. But I hope he is…


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