I received this letter more than fifteen years ago from a friend named Joyce. At the time, she was the executive director of a small homeless shelter. I’d met Joyce a few years earlier as a new consultant; she was my first client. We worked together for more than a year transforming her struggling, often inept, but so-full-of-heart organization. It was extremely challenging work for me – not because the organization’s issues were difficult but because the shelter was like stepping into another world. A world that welcomed, by its mission, poverty, loneliness, filth, depression, and mental illness. Pretty much a list of my greatest fears. As I watched Joyce, day after day, run that shelter and bring so much solace and strength to suffering people, it became perfectly clear to me that she was a Saint. Joyce passed away a few years ago, but I often re-read her letter, not only to remember what an extraordinary person she was, but also to remind myself of my great fortune this life.
Sorry this Christmas card is getting to you after New Year’s. I get so caught up in my work at the homeless shelter that it’s easy to forget everything else. Last week one of my guys (Junior) was convicted of first degree murder. The judge hasn’t sentenced him yet, but he’ll probably get life in prison. To the average person reading the newspaper that might sound fair enough. God knows that he was warned enough times about his drinking. Still, life imprisonment seems like too harsh a penalty for stabbing one of the meanest, most violent men in town. The murder victim’s brother beat two young girls to death a few years ago and got off on a technicality. It’s not very Christian to be placing value judgement on a dead man, but most of us who knew him are glad that he’s no longer stalking the streets.
Considering that Junior was in an alcoholic blackout the night of the murder, he should’ve been convicted of something less than premeditated murder. I think the jury was swayed by a convincing DA and their understandable feeling of fear of homeless bums.
The only consolation is that Junior was in the process of drinking himself to death like another one of my guys who died of exposure last Sunday night. We don’t have many town drunks. The ones who come into the shelter are pretty pathetic. Most of the time I offer them a cup of coffee and a few kind words. The last time I saw R.C. I gave him clean clothes and a shower pass because he had pooped his pants. What more can you do for someone who is almost dead?
In the past two years, five of my guys have succumbed to their alcoholism and many more have done jail time for the trouble they’ve gotten into when they were drinking. It’s too bad that we can’t implant an anti-alcohol device in their bodies, sort of like birth control implants. It would certainly relieve the over-crowding in the prisons.
But I wonder how many of the alcoholics would find other ways of killing themselves? On my monthly statistic sheets that I have to fill out for the government, they want to know how many of our homeless clients are suffering from mental illness. I’d like to answer their questions with a few of my own. How many men and women in their right minds would choose to sleep outdoors in the freezing cold and pouring rain night after night, year in and year out? Who would opt to be at odds with the police, to be hunted down by police dogs, to have their campsites raided and torn down? Who would chose to live in constant fear?
All still really good questions, Joyce. I only wish you were here to help me sort them out.