Last winter, I came across a man at the eastside Barnes & Noble’s. Matted hair, torn and dirty clothing, an unshaven face, he had the distinct look of a chronically homeless person. He cast an aura of kindness but also extreme privacy. I caught a vibe of fragility and a touch of fear. So, I let him be.
I learned later that he had been sleeping at the local Laundromat and spent the days in bookstores and fast food restaurants. No one knew him and he wasn’t using any services.
I spoke with the PATH caseworkers from Centerstone to see if they could track him down, but they were unable to find him.
That Spring, we hired Virginia Hall as a street outreach worker (thanks to the support of City and Federal funding). Her first day I told her to, “Go get him.” And she did.
She began just with simple conversation.
“Hi. My name’s Virginia.”
He would speak with her, but barely. She would sometimes invite him to Shalom, but he would respond, “They’re coming for me. They’re coming for me.”
She shared one story when he was sitting on a bench outside Target with a blanket over his head. She approached him and said, “Hi, Michael (not his real name). It’s Virginia.”
He poked his head out.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” she said.
“No,” he gently replied and covered himself back up.
While progress was slow, we were elated when about a month later he walked into Shalom for the first time. He came in, had lunch, didn’t say a word, and left quickly.
The next day he stayed a little longer, and the next, until he started to spend his entire day at the Center.
Fearful of scaring him away, we let him move at his own pace. We offered him clothing, new shoes, blankets, a place to store his things. He usually turned us down, but occasionally would accept something from us. Virginia considered getting socks on his feet one of her biggest victories with him.
He started to ask for magazines and would occasionally be reading one and laugh out loud.
Michael was always respectful, always responsive when we would speak to him, but he remained very distant and quiet.
Then, a breakthrough this Fall – one of the Bloomington Police Department’s new downtown resource officers found his family online. Amazingly, she discovered an old Facebook profile of his. His photo cast a different image of this man, clean-shaven, trim, clear eyes. His last entry, a joke about how to have pickles on your sandwich without soaking the bread, was 3 years ago.
Through Facebook, the officer was able to find Michael’s mother and brother, both in Indianapolis, who were elated to finally track him down.
We learned Michael was an Iraq war veteran. We learned that he had been staying with his father who had left him at the McDonald’s on the east side. He told Michael he would come back for him once he started taking his medication, explaining Michael’s “they’re coming for me” comments and his reticence to leave that side of town.
The police and Chase Techentin, our other street outreach worker, arranged a surprise meeting (so as not to scare him off) between Michael and his brother and mother.
The family arrived and Michael’s brother sat down with him at a restaurant and convinced Michael to come home with him. Chase told me Michael’s mother said, “You will never be on your own again.”
This story, of course, moves on from here. Michael has a lot of healing ahead of him that will begin with a stay at the hospital and his family has to learn how to be with him and all his challenges.
But, thanks to an amazing community partnership, he’s home again, reunited with his family.
The work of ending homelessness can be slow and arduous, but moments of heart-stirring transformation like these make it all worthwhile. Thanks to you and your support, this is why we do what we do.
Written by Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Executive Director of the Shalom Community Center. To support the work of the Center, click here.