When I started my self-style urban plunge and first joined Tent City, I did not come representing a church, a para-church, or any organization. I just showed up looking homeless and began blending in with those already there. The first thing I experienced was humiliation. I embraced the humility of joining THEM. I recall standing at the gate crossing the threshold of Us vs. Them, and pausing to ponder and pray. I felt a heaviness as I stepped into the gate where the sign warned me to “Enter at your own RISK.”
I knew I would find some kind of gatekeeper who would want to size me up and spell out the expectations. But the camp was less than a month old at that point, and not well organized at all. Nevertheless, my assumption was right. But the first man I met was a deeply afflicted schizophrenic man who practically never speaks to others. So when I asked him who I should speak with about staying, he grunted and pointed.
Welcome to Tent City, Lubbock, Texas! April Fool’s Day, 2011.
Sure enough, one of the “managers” greeted me right away. He took my name and ID number and put them in a file. He informed me that I had to provide my own tent, and that a tent was required if I wanted to stay. Other than that, there was no real processing. But he was friendly, and I asked where was a good place to pitch the tent? That’s all it took. Suddenly I had two homeless men taking my tent and setting it up for me in the dusty lot near the congregation of other tents bobbing in the West Texas wind.
I was struck by the fact that this was a gated community with a night watchman no less. That is about all it had in common with the well-to-do side of town, but these were important commonalities. However, I was blown away by the radical hospitality. These men just eagerly embraced me and set up my tabernacle for me while I watched. They seemed eager to show off their keen ability to set up a new tent in seconds without reading instructions. I just felt overwhelmed by the kindness.
When they were done, I knelt on the floor of the tent to pray and to crawl into it. Immediately the goat head stickers poked into my knees. “Ouch!” I cried. One of the men laughed and said, “Oh yeah, you gotta get some cardboard to spread out under there.” He ran off to get me some.
At that moment I learned that every little thing I did at Tent City had some kind of built-in hardship. The tent was hot. The train tracks, just 25 yards outside the compound, erupted in whistles and clatter every other hour. The wind, the dust, the neighbors dogs. If I wanted to use the bathroom, they had a port-O-potty on the other end of the compound – a 3 minute walk roundtrip. It was already a mess and toilet paper sparse. So much easier to pee out the door in the night… I am sure most of my male neighbors did. One of them told me to use a old water bottle and dump it in the morning. “Don’t confuse it for your drink!” he warned.
The worst hardship I saw was when the big Haboob blew through town that summer. It made headlines for days. It almost wiped Tent City off the map. Some of the old timers shrugged it off; most of the homeless complained at length. You had to have a tent to stay at Tent City, but several residents lost their tents to the storm. I came into the scale house (the compound is an old abandoned cotton gin complex) and watched one of the “managers” take usable bits of several broken tents and try to repair them and restore a few. He had no tools to work with and no money to buy parts. But every tent he could repair offered some poor soul a chance to stay again for the night.
I thought about how far $10 would go to help just then. Meanwhile the counter in the scale house was stacked up with donated pizzas. There were over 30 of them. They tasted great the first day, but after 2 days when over half had still not been eaten, it was time to throw them out. But no one had the heart to put all that charity in the trash. They languished on the counter for hours in front of the manager repairing tents with no tools in the hopes of sparing a couple of people being evicted.
I could go on and on. There were multiple facets to these glimpses I share here and many more stories to tell. Most of them express hardship, a few express joy. But this is a blog post, and it is getting too long now. So I will draw the post to a close. But I want to share the experiences I had. I walked a mile in these shoes. I need my home-dwelling friends to know what is going on out there. I need my homeless friends to know that someone came and shared in moments of hardship with them. This post helps me to bridge that gap between Us and Them, and in doing so it confuses whether I am one of Us or Them.
It is a distinction I hope (in time) to eradicate.