Bales didn’t always have that compassion he criticizes Angelenos of lacking. Bales’ grandfather was chronically homeless, and Bales’ father lived in tents, garages, and sheds from age 4 to 17. But Bales himself grew up under a proper roof, and used to “look right through people digging in the dumps” until one winter night in Des Moines, Iowa, a homeless man with an unkempt beard asked for the sandwich in his hand. It was the same day Bales had preached on Matthew 25:40 six times: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Yet instinctively, Bales refused to share his sandwich. After the man slouched away, Bales felt cut with conviction—“It’s like turning away Jesus!”—and asked God for a second chance. Later he met the man again and took him out for dinner. Several weeks after that “heart change,” Bales got a job at a mission in Des Moines, and years later URM offered him a job as CEO.
Currently, Bales feels the stretch of covering the gap between available care and spiking homelessness. URM operates via private donations, but he says giving has decreased 30 percent, even as the need swelled 55 percent in the past year. URM is the rare 24-hour shelter that accepts single women, and last year the number of single women ages 18 to 90 at URM doubled to 350.
Officer Joseph is also feeling the strain. “Look, I don’t get paid to deal with pretty things,” he sighed. “I have to deal with society’s failures to handle their problems on their own, and also our government’s issues of not adequately helping people who are disenfranchised and impoverished.”
But there are also moments of sparkle amid the darkness, like the day a pink-haired, grinning woman named Diane jiggled a ring of keys and proudly announced, “Apartment key, mail key!”
“You got housing!” Joseph exclaimed, pulling her into a bear hug. After living in Skid Row for 16 years, Diane finally procured housing. But she had nothing in the fridge, so Joseph promised to get her a week’s worth of food. It would come out of his own pocket.
We met more sparkles along the way. A hazel-eyed woman with white pigtails let out a delighted yelp when she saw Joseph. Flinging down her walker and two big bags, she limped over as fast as she could and enveloped her arms around him. Then more people spotted him, and soon Joseph’s burly arms were busy hugging and fist-bumping.
He’s lost a lot of battles out there, but he’s also won hearts, Joseph said, later adding, “That’s what a lot of politicians don’t get: There is no universal solution to homelessness. You have to come down and see the people before you come up with initiatives and measures.”
Should policymakers ever sit down with Collins at his favorite Denny’s, where he once sang for customers to support his crack addiction, he would tell them what he repeatedly tells me: We are plastering flimsy Band-Aids over a gushing gunshot wound. “People are still dying, selling dope, still homeless and hopeless. The situation is getting worse—and why is that? You’re trying to fix a spiritual problem with natural things.”
Collins says he had to go through the hell he endured: “I was hardheaded. I didn’t want to get off the streets because I loved crack with a passion.” It took a lot of wrong turns, bad falls, and broken bones before he finally decided, “You know what, I’m through.”
‘If you’re providing me clothes, food, and tents, I don’t have to spend the money I get from the government on anything but my next hit.’ —Collins
And at the right time, God sent him people who remembered his birthday and stuck around even after he skipped out on rehab: “They didn’t try to love me from a distance. They could have thrown me bread, jacket, and a tent, but they were really concerned with what’s going on inside me.” Collins credits such “up-close and personal” attention and “unconditional love” for keeping him sober for a year.
Today, Collins lives in a recovery shelter but sometimes sleeps in his van during days when he works 12-hour shifts managing three stores in Skid Row—stores from which he once stole. He handles thousands of dollars in cash right in the drug dealers’ lair, breathing in the chemical fumes that still smell so sweet to him. At times the temptation is so strong that he’s prostrate before God, begging for strength. Then he remembers the people who love him, people who would grieve if he returned to his old life. So he decides to fight another day, trusting in God’s faithfulness: “It was God in the beginning, God in the end, and God is going to take me through it all.”