The homeless veteran

By Andrew Gerns

The classic TV series “The Naked City” used to end with this line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” I was way too young to see the show when it was on, but that line sums up city ministry just the same. In a city church there are a million stories.

Here is one more.

One Advent‐tide, our parish was getting ready for the Christmas celebration that we host for the guests of our Saturday soup kitchen. The Ark Soup Kitchen serves an average of 75 meals a week and the hosts are volunteers from Trinity and from other churches and community groups in our area. But everyone who eats at the Ark comes to Christmas. They await the visit from St. Nicholas who gives out presents we have received from donors in the parish and matched to guests who signed up before Thanksgiving.

But this particular year, strange things were happening. The wrapped presents under the tree in the rear of the church had become “peekages.” Someone not‐so‐carefully pulled aside the wrapping to peek at what was inside. Little things in the church did not go missing but were just in a slightly wrong place as if someone had picked it up and put it down again but not quite sure as to where it belonged.

We stepped up our lock‐up procedures but as the strange events moved into the second week, we found our answer when a person came into pay the nominal rent we charge to community groups who use our space. She gave our secretary glowing reviews for the new sexton we hired.

“Oh?” said our puzzled secretary. “How nice.”

Then another rave review came in. And we began to wonder just who this angel was.

It seems that the outside group was met by a polite middle‐aged man dressed in a jeans and a flannel shirt. He would accompany them as they unlocked the door, help them set up their tables and chairs, make the coffee, and then at the end of the meeting re‐appear, clean up the coffee, put away furniture and take out the trash. He would wish the group good night and promise to take care of the lights and the doors.

And he did because he was spending the night.

We decided to find out who this fellow was. And so after choir practice—the one time he did not appear—we combed our darkened building. We found him asleep on one of the relocated pews that lined our parish hall. As soon as he saw us, he bolted out the door leaving his belongings behind.

Besides a few clothes, there wasn’t much. And most of that he got from us.

He had soap, shampoo and a shaving kit from what we collected for the homeless shelter, ironically enough. He had picked food from our food basket and pantry. He had cooked on our stove using our utensils and ate using our plates and flatware. When we found him, he had not cleaned up for the night, but clean up he did because everyday our real sexton checked the space and there was never any sign of him. We found that he stashed his stuff way back under the stage behind the table carts. He used an alarm clock that he found with the other Christmas gifts.

And he left his identification.

Our secret live‐in sexton was a Viet‐Nam era veteran. Another homeless vet had made our church his home for a little over two weeks.

We called the police. We did not want him arrested, but we wanted him to get his stuff back. Besides, he had done such a good job, maybe he’d like to get paid for it? But it was not to be. That very night he got into a scuffle with another homeless person and landed in jail for the night. The officer who came, himself a vet, said that this was not a surprise. Together, we –-the officer and a few of us at church—tried to reach out to the man, but he took back his stuff with a nod and went away.

Oh, how I wish we could have turned this into a heart‐warming Christmas story! Alas, there was no redemption here. He just took off into the night.

One can only guess at his story. Was he homeless because of addiction, or stress‐related mental illness? There was no alcohol or drug anywhere in his stuff and he never tried, as far as we could tell, to break into the places where we kept our valuables. Did he have a family? Was he able to hold down a job but just not have enough to afford his own place to live? Clearly he was inventive and able to deal with people on some level, but here he was, living on the street –and for a time in our parish hall.

As so he left, becoming another story in another city church. His story, though, is not unique.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, who studied patterns of homelessness among veterans, veterans make up a disproportionate share of the nations homeless population. They tell us that in 2006, approximately 195,827 veterans were homeless on a given night—an increase of 0.8 percent from 194,254 in 2005. More veterans experience homeless over the course of the year. We estimate that 495,400 were homeless in 2006.

While vets make up only 11 percent of the civilian population, one quarter of all homeless people (26%) are veterans. An estimated 44,000 to 64,000 veterans are chronically homeless in this country.

The popular picture of the psychologically scarred, dysfunctional vet does not account for the high incidence of homelessness. Nearly half a million vets are paying more than 50% of their income for rent, and half of these live below the poverty level, and 43% were receiving food stamps.

“Female veterans, those with a disability, and unmarried or separated veterans were more likely to experience severe housing cost burden,” the Alliance reports. “There are also differences by period of service, with those serving during the Korean War and WWII more likely to have severe housing cost burden.”

The reasons for homelessness among veterans are the same reasons that homelessness is widespread in this country. But like those who go before us to protect our nation and our freedoms, these vets go before us as a living sign that in the most affluent nation in the world there are far too many of us who have no place to live.

I have no doubt that among the routines of ministry among caring churches there is some kind of outreach to a homeless vet hidden among the faces of those seeking food, shelter, a handout or a little work.

On Veterans Day, we will mark the graves of the honored dead; we will have parades to honor those who have served our country in the armed forces at home and abroad. We will remember the sacrifices who served with flags, ribbons, and car magnets. But it may be that the most effective way we can honor veterans is to work for accessible, quality healthcare for these women and men; and, most of all, work to end the scourge of homelessness that falls disproportionately on this group and others.

The Rev. Andrew Gerns is the rector of Trinity Church, Easton, Pa., and chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog Andrew Plus.

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