Several weeks ago, I bought a man a coffee. As I drove to work, I noticed someone walking down University Avenue with a sleeping bag wrapped around his shoulders. It was obvious that the faded bag, slightly torn at the edges, and the cold cement made up his nightly residence. At the next traffic light, I made a U-turn and parked at a gas station to talk with him. I asked how he was doing. He said he was fine, but, of course, he wasn’t. His irregular speech patterns suggested mental illness. After every sentence,
he offered a nervous laugh. When I asked for his name, he replied in the third-person: “Oh, well, he doesn’t have a name,” and then mumbled a few words before laughing again. Being nameless, lamentably, seemed natural to him. Later, he told me his name was Darren.*
As we talked, I felt the intense gaze of another gas station customer, as if two men in conversation were a Provo anomaly. I gave Darren a few dollars and asked, “Do you want to grab breakfast?” “Are you hungry?,” he asked me back. “Now that you gave me money, I can buy you something.” “Thanks,”
I said with a smile, “but today it’s my treat.” As he ate a breakfast sandwich in the parking lot next to Burger King, we continued to talk. “Darren,”
I finally inquired, “did you sleep outside last night?” “Yes, but it wasn’t cold.” (It had dropped into the 30s that night.) “I just need a warmer bag that isn’t ripped.” Again, he laughed. “Is there anywhere you could go to get help?” He mentioned a few places. “Could I take you somewhere warm?,”
I asked. “Are you cold?,” he replied. “Please have some coffee.” I politely declined. “Then eat the hash browns. You look skinny.” This time, I laughed. I told him that I already had breakfast, but Darren was persistent. I ate the hash browns.
After breakfast, Darren gave me directions to the Food and Care Coalition.
It wouldn’t open for another 45 minutes, but there was a man waiting outside who I thought was an employee. He told me about Provo’s growing homelessness situation and the city’s reluctance to open shelters for fear of attracting “transients” to the area. The man suggested that we contact
Provo Community Action. I thanked him, and we left. I realize now that he was probably not an employee, but another soul in need of support. Homelessness, I am learning, has many faces. Community Action told us that they couldn’t help with Darren’s situation, but they gave me other numbers to contact, none of which could provide immediate assistance. I felt trapped and discouraged.
Darren asked to go to Sportsman’s Warehouse to buy better winter gear
with his new money. I took him there, but suggested that he travel to Salt Lake City, where he could stay the night at a shelter. He shook his head.
“The shelters are dangerous,” he explained, so he had traveled south to escape the city. Out of options, I gave him enough money to take a bus to a warmer climate. I didn’t know what else to do. By then, it was nearly 9:00am, and, although my mind was far from it, I needed to get to work. I felt terrible leaving him there, knowing how cold the night would be. “Darren,” I pled one last time, “will you use your money to go somewhere warm tonight?”
He said he would be fine. I didn’t believe him.
Before leaving, Darren preached a short sermon, touched my hands repeatedly, and blessed my family. He also tried to give me his notebook.
On the first page was a list of virtues: honesty, love, trust, generosity, and charity, among many others. “Darren,” I concluded, “you might need
these words. You keep the notebook.” Looking back, I realize I was wrong.
I needed those words. As he walked away, I experienced a wide range of emotions, and left with a deeper compassion for those who walk the streets daily without a name.
*Name changed to protect identity.
Click here to access the Food and Care Coalition donation page. Under “Donation Designation,” please select “Other: Category of Your Choice,” and then type “Emergency Shelter (Wiseman)” in the comment box. Even the smallest donations make a big difference! I also sincerely appreciate your help sharing this ongoing fundraising campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. Thank you!