By David Berry: A few weeks ago, I met a man named Paul just outside of my boxing gym at 19th and NW Miami Court. If you missed my Facebook post/GoFundMe page about that, you can read about it here.
The past couple of weeks since then have been a whirlwind of highs and lows, frustration and joy.
First, the bad news. Paul has been hospitalized twice with various ailments, which are related to his blood pressure and a propensity to fainting. He is bouncing back now, and is taking some medications, but he’s had a rough time in the past couple of weeks. Beyond that, there have unfortunately been some obstacles with getting him on his feet. His ID and social security cards were stolen, along with his wallet, after staying in a dorm-style motel one night.
But there’s been some good news. I’ve forged a relationship with Paul. We speak almost daily and see each other in person three or so times per week. When I met Paul, he was in a pair of beaten down sneakers, the soles worn through to the pavement that he walked on. He’s now walking around in a brand new pair of sneakers and a couple of new shirts and pants too. Beyond that, your contributions have helped us pay for places for Paul to rest his head, a bus pass for a month, food and medication. We got his cell phone turned back on, and we got him a haircut and beard trim ahead of some job introductions we’ve made for him regarding job opportunities, and we’ve been able to use some of the money to help him purchase replacement cards of the ones he had stolen.
Much of what has happened, though, isn’t as easily compartmentalized as good or bad. And somehow I was naive enough to believe this would all be an easy fix. It’s been anything but, and as I’ve learned, help is not a transaction.
Help is a process. A painful one. I had a pretty clear idea in my head of what $2,000 could help him do, and that was my first mistake. Because I was estimating my own abilities and instincts in that scenario, based on my specific life experiences; not his.
The most difficult, heartbreaking moment to embody that distinction took place on Monday of this week. On Friday, Paul had told me that he’d found a furnished room that he could rent for a month for $600; utilities and laundry were included and it was in close enough proximity to the jobs he was looking at. Plus, it provided the security of living in a space where he wouldn’t have to fear that his things would be stolen from him.
I was thrilled for him; we had budgeted for this. I met him to give him the money so that he could finalize the agreement and move in.
Monday came. Paul called to tell me that he wasn’t able to get the room as he’d expected and that he instead stayed in a motel for three nights. On top of that, he wanted to get across town on Monday to the nowhere-near-him social security office to reorder his ID card before the office closed, and the fastest way he could do that was by cab. Long story short, once you added in food costs for the weekend, he had blown through most of the money I’d given him on Friday.
I was crushed. And I was pissed.
Which brings me to a frustration inside that frustration; everyone who has doubted this situation or the credibility of a complete stranger wandering the streets would say from a mile away “well no shit he blew through it. What did you expect?”
And I’d have nothing to say to tell them they were wrong. In that moment, I wanted to give him the rest of the money that was rightfully his, wish him luck, and tell him to no longer waste my time.
But I couldn’t.
Every natural instinct was to wash my hands of the situation. But then, how many people had given up on him before? How many people had doubted him before? And more specifically, who had ever really helped him? I don’t just mean a few bucks here and there, or a place to stay. I mean, whoever sat with him, explained how to use a computer to create a resume, or get online to search jobs, to search rooms.
It hit me just how much I’d taken for granted that someone who has long struggled to make ends meet would somehow become thrifty and financially savvy while in the midst of survival mode.
I’m not here to say that he or anyone who is struggling isn’t to blame. To some extent, people end up in these situations because of their own lack of initiative or poor decision making. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t tried. And more than likely, they have never been taught the right way. On top of that, few people have done more than discard them without a second thought, as if they were a worn-out piece of clothing.
I met with Paul last night to give him some more money for food, and to talk. I was still frustrated, but he was as downtrodden in spirit as I’d seen him at any point. He told me he didn’t want to continue on any longer, and I knew that he wasn’t just telling me he was exhausted and ready to sleep.
The cynic in me again wondered if this was a manipulation; a habit forged from a life built on misdirecting strangers long enough to get a meal or a ride to the next stop.
But I couldn’t shake that even if that were 100 percent true, there was still a man in front of me in pain. A man who felt disconnected from love, or even the comfort of knowing someone was wondering or worrying about him that night.
I told him that I took it personally that he would consider giving up. He told me he couldn’t do it anymore. And I told him that if he couldn’t do it for himself, then I wanted him to do it for me; that what he did or didn’t do mattered to me.
And then he cried. “But you don’t even know me,” he said through his tears.
He was right; I don’t. I may never “know” him in a way that could help me understand what’s inside him, how he ended up here, or what’s in his heart. But I told him that there was a reason that I was standing there with him, on a Monday night on the corner of a busy intersection, weeks after a random encounter outside my boxing gym.
At the same time, though, I told him that the money was running out and there wouldn’t be more of it. This entire situation was to help him get on his feet, not to be his safety net. So I gave him an ultimatum; if he didn’t take the steps to get his ID card and social security card in order so that he could get a job, I would give him what was left and we would go our separate ways.
If it’s not painfully obvious, I don’t pretend to know the first thing about how to help someone like this. How do you teach a man to fish? I expected to hand this guy $2,000 a few weeks ago, help him rent a room, get some new shoes on his feet and start a new job and be off and running.
But he needs more than that. He needs love. He needs support, and he needs the belief of others. He needs to believe in himself. He needs to develop good habits and he needs someone to hold him accountable, to help him take baby steps toward his end goal.
“There are a lot of things you need to get in order, but none of them are even possible if we don’t get the basics out of the way,” I said to him.
Today, Paul got his ID and social security cards, updated his resume at a job resource center, and applied for his first job. It seems that for at least one day, teaching a man to fish has proved fruitful.
I don’t know what tomorrow brings for Paul. I don’t know how much of myself I can give, and if it’s going to end up having been for naught. If I’ll remember this season as much for opening my heart as I will for crushing it.
But if just for a moment, I saw a man who was encouraged by his own actions and the fact that someone had cared enough to push him there.
Tomorrow is a new day.